U.S. federal firefighting costs (suppression only), 1986-2015. Graphic: Anthony LeRoy Westerling / National Interagency Fire Center

By Anthony LeRoy Westerling
23 May 2016

(The Conversation) – Dramatic images of out-of-control wildfires in western North American forests have appeared on our television and computer screens with increasing regularity in recent decades, while costs of fire suppression have soared. In 2015, federal spending on suppression exceeded US$2 billion, just 15 years after first exceeding $1 billion. Something has been changing our fire seasons.

There are competing explanations for why wildfires have been increasing, particularly in our forests. I’ve been studying the science of climate and wildfires for more than 15 years and the take-home message from our research is that, while our management of the landscape can influence wildfire in many different ways, it is a warming climate that is drying out western U.S. forests and leading to more, larger wildfires and a longer wildfire season.

A look at the latest data

Ten years ago, several colleagues and I set out to see if we could quantify the changes in wildfire, particularly in mountain forests of the western U.S. We wanted to see if climate might be causing some of the increase in wildfire.

In our paper, we concluded that wildfire had indeed increased substantially in western U.S. forests beginning in the 1980s. We also found that most of this increase was from fires burning primarily in mid-elevation northern U.S. Rocky Mountain forests in years with an early snowmelt.

Our latest research shows that wildfire activity in western U.S. forests has continued to increase, decade by decade, since the 1980s.

We looked at federally managed forests in the Sierra Nevada, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and northern and southern Rockies. Over the decade through 2012, large fires (fires greater than 1,000 acres or 400 hectares) were 556 percent more frequent than in the 1970s and early 1980s. And the area affected increased even more dramatically: the forest area burned in large fires between 2003 and 2012 was more than 1,200 percent greater than in the period between 1973 and 1982.


Wildfires in West have gotten bigger, more frequent and longer since the 1980s

Arctic sea ice extent for 2012-2016 as tracked by the Danish Meteorological Institute. The 1979-2000 average is depicted as a gray line; the gray shading denotes one standard deviation from that average. Graphic: Danish Meteorological Institute

By Bob Henson
20 May 2016

(wunderground.com) – The sea ice that coats the Arctic Ocean each winter and erodes each summer is going through its most depleted spring since modern observing began. The Danish Meteorological Institute reported the lowest sea ice extent of any April in the Arctic’s 38-year-long satellite record. As luck would have it, the primary satellite sensor used by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) for extent measurement began producing spurious data in April. A similar microwave imager from another satellite is now in the process of being intercalibrated to ensure consistency of the long-term record. Even with that caveat, it’s clear that the unusually rapid ice loss from April is steaming ahead. NSIDC’s Mark Serreze confirmed in an email that the 2016 Arctic sea ice extent is indeed at record-low levels for May, as implied by Figures 1 and 2. Different agencies use different algorithms to measure sea ice extent, but the slight variations that result do not affect the big picture.

This year’s hasty ice retreat has been fueled by incredibly mild temperatures across the Arctic during much of the winter and spring--a byproduct of El Niño atop longer-term warming from human-produced greenhouse gases. At Barrow, Alaska, every day since January 1 has been above average except for January 22, February 6, and a stretch from March 28 to April 3. Alaska’s Climate Division 1, which covers the North Slope, is having its warmest year to date by far (see Figure 3), with the January-to-April average of 2.7°F beating the previous record (–1.4°F, from 2014) by an eye-popping 4.1°F. Another red-letter data point: snow cover disappeared from the open tundra at the NOAA Barrow Observatory on May 13. Assuming that no snow cover returns this spring--an increasingly good bet--this is the earliest melt-out date by far in 74 years of recordkeeping at the Barrow lab, beating out May 24, 2002. Conditions have also been exceptionally mild on the other side of the Arctic. The town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway--the northermost civilian community on the planet--has had only one below-average day in 2016 thus far. [more]

Arctic Sea Ice Goes Far Beyond Record Low Extent for May

A firefighter battles a blaze in Russia's Zabaikalsky region in 2016. Photo: Agata Karasyova / Greenpeace

By Alexey Eremenko
24 May 2016

MOSCOW (NBC News) – Colossal wildfires in Russia have burned an area the size Vermont and Delaware combined, Greenpeace said Tuesday, amid fears the country could suffer its worst wildfire season in more than 100 years.

The season is still in its early stages, but wildfires blazing across the country's far east have already scorched through more than 11,500 square miles, according to the environmental charity.

The largest area burned in a single wildfire season in the 21st century was 50,000 square miles in 2013 — around the size of Alabama.

Alexey Yaroshenko, the head of Greenpeace Russia's forest program, said that this year may top that figure.

"Most of these wildfires are man-made," he told NBC News by phone.

Many of the blazes are started by villagers who are torching the previous year's grass make way for new growth. But the practice often backfires. This year alone, four settlements have been forced to evacuate before being engulfed by fire, although no casualties have been reported.

Greenpeace and the Russian government disagree about the extent of the fires.

The Federal Forestry Agency told NBC News less than 2,000 square miles has burned so far this year.

It said in a statement that Greenpeace's figures were overstated because they are based on satellite monitoring footage, which it said is unable to differentiate between fire and smoke-engulfed, but otherwise safe areas. [more]

Russia Wildfire Is Size of Vermont and Delaware: Greenpeace

20 May 2016 (Siberian Times) – This is the unnerving scene on a highway linking the city of Chita with Khabarovsk and Vladivostok in the Far East of Russia. Seasonal fires are raging, posing an acute threat to motorists.

Eyewitness Valeria told local Zab TV: “Cars were stopping. The oncoming traffic was not visible at all. We tried to drive very slowly. Then we saw a fuel truck. It rushed through this hell at full speed, with the knowledge that any spark can destroy it.

“The driver obviously feared for his life. It was like hell. A terrible feeling. It was very scary. We saw three forest patrol vehicles. They just stood there and the fire epicentres were right behind them. But they could not do anything. No one helped them.”

Some 24,600 hectares are ablaze in the TransBaikal region and these images from a car video show the reality of the fires. The car was en route from Chita to Mogocha, according to postings on social media. [more]

Beware smoke: forest fires pose terrifying traffic hazard in Siberia

Białowieża national park in POland covers 17 percent of the forest and has been untouched by humans since the ice age. Photo: G. Cappelli / Rex / Shutterstock

By Arthur Neslen
18 May 2016

Białowieża, Poland (The Guardian) – Europe’s last primeval forest is facing what campaigners call its last stand as loggers prepare to start clear-cutting trees, following the dismissal of dozens of scientists and conservation experts opposed to the plan.

Poland’s new far right government says logging is needed because more than 10% of spruce trees in the Unesco world heritage site of Białowieża are suffering from a bark beetle outbreak. But nearly half the logging will be of other species, according to its only published inventory.

Oak trees as high as 150 feet that have grown for 450 years could be reduced to stumps under the planned threefold increase in tree fells. Białowieża hosts Europe’s largest bison population and wolves and lynx still roam freely across its sun-mottled interior. Its foliage stretches for nearly 1,000 square miles across the border between Poland and Belarus.

Beneath its green canopy, sunlight filters down on to a panorama of skyscraper trees soaring as much as 180 feet into the air, swampy water pools dammed by beavers, and psychedelic fungi that sprout from tree trunks.

But a recently-passed logging law to allow work to begin on the old-growth forest has divided families, and led to death threats against campaigners and allegations of an “environmental coup” by state interests linked to the timber trade. The logging in Białowieża is expected to raise about 700m złotys (£124m), and pave the way for extensive and more lucrative tree clearances.

Sources say that internal government discussions have already begun on extending the new timber regime to the national park, which covers 17% of the forest and has been untouched by humans since the ice age.

Mirosław Stepaniuk says he was sacked as director of Białowieża’s national park shortly after Polish elections six months ago because of his support for turning the whole forest into a protected conservation area.

He told the Guardian: “An environmental coup is being staged here not just by the government, but by the national forestry authority. If they are successful, it could trigger a cascade, an avalanche of similar cases in other places.” [more]

Last stand for Europe's remaining ancient forest as loggers prepare to move in

Millions of dead fish float among the docks of Queule, in Chile's Cautín Province, 7 April 2016. Photo: Eugenio Tuma Zedán / Twitter

By Michael Snyder
9 May 2016

(Activist Post) – Why are millions upon millions of dead sea creatures suddenly washing up on beaches all over the world?  It is certainly not unusual for fish and other inhabitants of our oceans to die.  This happens all the time.  But over the past month we have seen a series of extremely alarming mass death incidents all over the planet.  As you will see below, many of these mass death incidents have involved more than 30 tons of fish.  In places such as Chile and Vietnam, it has already gotten to the level where it has started to become a major national crisis.  People see their coastlines absolutely buried in dead sea creatures, and they are starting to freak out.

For example, just check out what is going on in Chile right now.  The following comes from a Smithsonian Magazine article titled “Why Are Chilean Beaches Covered With Dead Animals?

Compared to other countries, Chile is almost all coast, and that geographical fluke means that the country is known for its beautiful beaches. But that reputation may be on the wane thanks to a new sight on Chilean shores: dead animals. Lots of them. Heaps of them, in fact. As Giovanna Fleitas reports for the Agence France-Presse, the South American country’s beaches are covered with piles of dead sea creatures—and scientists are trying to figure out why.

Tales of dead animals washing up on shore are relatively common; after all, the ocean has a weird way of depositing its dead on shore. But Chile’s problem is getting slightly out of hand. As Fleitas writes, recent months have not been kind to the Chilean coast, which has played host to washed-up carcasses of over 300 whales, 8,000 tons of sardines, and nearly 12 percent of the country’s annual salmon catch, to name a few.

Authorities in Chile are scrambling to come up with a reason for why this is happening, but nobody appears to be quite sure what is causing this tsunami of death.

In Vietnam, things are even worse.  At this point, so many dead fish and clams have been washing up along the coast that soldiers have been deployed to bury them.

Millions of fish have washed up dead along a 125-kilometre stretch of the Vietnamese coast in one of the communist country’s worst environmental disasters.

Soldiers have been deployed to bury tonnes of fish, clams, and the occasional whale that began dying in early April along the north-central coast, including some popular tourist beaches.

Vietnamese officials facing growing anger over the disaster have not announced the official cause of the deaths, which have affected the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families.

Elsewhere in Asia, there have been similar incidents.  For example, CNN is reporting that one lake in southern China is currently dealing with 35 tons of dead fish. [more]

All Of A Sudden, Fish Are Dying By The MILLIONS All Over The Planet

 Farmer Serena Gadinala stands next to her wilted crops in the Neno district of southern Malawi, after a second year of deep drought in much of southern and eastern Africa has ravaged crops i 2016. Photo: Tamara van Vliet / OCHA

By John Vidal
22 May 2016

Lilongwe, Malawi (The Guardian) – Up to 50 million people in Africa will need food by Christmas as a crisis across the continent triggered by El Niño worsens, the UN and major international charities have warned.

A second year of deep drought in much of southern and eastern Africa has ravaged crops, disrupted water supplies and driven up food prices, leaving 31 million people needing food now, and 20 million more likely to run out this year.

A further 10 million people in Ethiopia, six million in southern Sudan and five million in Yemen were in danger of starvation after floods and drought, said the UN.

The severest El Niño in 30 years was expected to tail off in the next month as hot equatorial waters in the Pacific returned to normal temperatures, but its effects would be felt for many more months, said the World Food Programme. Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s humanitarian chief, said: “The collective impact of the El Niño phenomenon has created one of the world’s biggest disasters for millions of people, yet this crisis is receiving little attention.

“The numbers are staggering. One million children in eastern and southern Africa alone are severely acutely malnourished, and across southern Africa 32 million people need assistance and that figure is likely to increase.” The UN predicts that food will start running out on a large scale by July, with the crisis peaking between December and next April.

Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Madagascar, Angola, and Swaziland have declared national emergencies or disasters, as have seven of South Africa’s nine provinces. Botswana, Kenya, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have also been badly hit.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has appealed for foreign aid to buy food and Malawi is expected to declare in the next few weeks that more than 8 million people, half the population, will need food aid by November. Maize prices have risen by 60% across much of the region within a few months.

Seven million people in Syria, 10 million in Ethiopia and 14 million in Yemen also needed food urgently, said the UN. Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, pledged $110m after visiting Malawi and Zimbabwe last week. “We cannot describe enough how dire the situation is,” he said.

Abdoulaye Balde, the World Food Programme country director in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, said: “The situation is critical. We are at the point of no return.” [more]

50 million Africans face hunger after crops fail again

The 6th Street Bridge connecting downtown LA with its eastern districts is reflected in the Los Angeles River, 27 January 2016. Photo: Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

By Nick Stockton
13 May 2016

(Wired) – Drought is a tricky thing to define. It is not just a matter of how little water falls out of the sky. If it were, you would be forgiven for believing that California’s wettish winter had ended, or even alleviated, the worst drought in state history. But no. Despite the snow in the Sierra Nevada, the water filling Lake Shasta, and the rapids in the Kern River, California is still in a state of drought. For now, maybe forever.

Even the governor thinks so. On May 9, Jerry Brown issued an executive order that makes permanent certain emergency water cuts from the past few years. “Now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life,” Brown said in a prepared statement.

The most impactful part of Brown’s order requires that cities submit monthly water use, conservation, and enforcement reports to state officials. The order also promises updates to both urban and rural drought preparedness guidelines, and bans wasteful things like washing your car without a shut-off nozzle, or hosing down sidewalks. (The wastefulness of that last one is debatable if you’ve ever taken a walk through San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood the morning after a Giants game.)

However, at the same meeting officials from the State Water Resources Control Board—California’s water police—indicated that cities would no longer be required to meet strict efficiency goals that the governor ordered last year. “Even though there are some areas that do not have adequate water supply, there are others that do. So this lets local officials decide based on their own resources,” says Timothy Moran, spokesperson for the Board.

So, obviously, the largest urban water district in the state went ahead and made it easier to drink. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is home to 19 million thirsty residents in a near contiguous suburban sprawl reaching from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border. On May 10, the MWD eliminated stiff rationing and overuse fees for the cities and smaller sub districts that buy from it.

Which is kind of insane. The entire Metropolitan Water District is in either Extreme or Exceptional Drought. Those are technical terms, by the way, defined by a government agency. They mean a region’s precipitation, streamflow, reservoir storage, and soil moisture are in the 1 to 5 percent ranges of normal. [more]

Thanks El Niño, But California’s Drought Is Probably Forever

Photo (1), taken in Dec. 2015 shows healthy coral near Lizard Island. The coral in photo (2) from March is bleached. In April 2016, as shown in photo (3), algae begin to grow on the coral. Finally, in photo (4) from May 2016, you can see heavy algal overgrowth. Photo: CoralWatch

By Merrit Kennedy
14 May 2016

(NPR) – The massive bleaching hitting the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia is likely that country's "biggest ever environmental disaster," says Dr. Justin Marshall, who has studied the reef for three decades.

Only 7 percent of the reef has escaped bleaching, according to researchers at the ARC Center of Excellence. Marshall, a professor at the University of Queensland, says the destructive phenomenon is happening in an area the size of Scotland.

"Before this mass bleaching started, we already were at the point of losing 50% of the coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef. This, I think, will probably take another 50% off what was left," Marshall says.

Over the course of the last six months, Marshall and his colleagues with the citizen science project Coral Watch have documented the degradation of reef structures near Lizard Island, one of the worst-hit areas.

They photographed the same formations of coral multiple times, showing clearly the pace of the destruction.

"It was a beautiful, wonderful paradise of reef structure and animals, and it's not there anymore. Or it is — but it's a slime ball, it's a gloomy place," Marshall says.

In this series of photos, you can see first that the coral is healthy – then, bleached. Algae begin to grow on the coral, which later intensifies, eventually resulting in disintegration of the coral and the loss of a habitat. […]

Scientists are concerned about reefs worldwide. "We are currently experiencing the longest global coral bleaching event ever observed," C. Mark Eakin, the Coral Reef Watch coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Maryland, tells The New York Times. "We are going to lose a lot of the world's reefs during this event." […]

He adds: "I will probably never see the Great Barrier Reef in the state that it was in six months ago ever again." [more]

New Photos Show The Rapid Pace Of Great Barrier Reef Bleaching

Total population in World Bank income groups, 1960–2014, shown alongside total population affected by natural disasters. Graphic: World Bank

By Laurie Goering
16 May 2016

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Cities around the world are failing to plan for fast-increasing risks from extreme weather and other hazards, particularly as population growth and surging migration put more people in the path of those threats, the World Bank said on Monday.

By 2050, 1.3 billion people and $158 trillion in assets will be menaced by worsening river and coastal floods alone, warned a new report [pdf] from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), managed by the World Bank.

"Cities and coastal areas are woefully unprepared for the kind of climate and disaster risk now facing our world," said John Roome, the World Bank Group's senior director for climate change.

But as cities expand and revamp, they have the opportunity to lower that risk by putting in place more resilient infrastructure and preventive policies, he said.

Those could include everything from restrictions on using too much groundwater - one of the reasons cities from Tokyo to Jakarta are sinking - to planning for more green space, and new schools and apartments set above flood-prone zones. […]

A combination of sea-level rise and sinking of coastal cities - including from excessive extraction of the groundwater beneath them - could drive disaster losses in 136 coastal cities from $6 billion a year in 2010 to $1 trillion a year by 2070, the report said.

But planning now for more big typhoons in Manila, for example, by ensuring new homes are not built on flood plains and keeping drainage canals clear, will pay off, the experts said.

"The decisions we make today are defining the disasters of tomorrow," said Francis Ghesquiere, head of the GFDRR secretariat.

"We have a huge challenge - but also a huge opportunity - to try to make sure the trillions of dollars that will go into new housing, new infrastructure, the extension of cities … do not increase risk exposure but rather reduce it." [more]

Cities "woefully unprepared" for rising disaster risk - World Bank

WASHINGTON, 16 May 2016 – A new report is warning that the world is ill-prepared for an increasing rise in disasters, spurred by climate change, rising populations and increasing vulnerability of people in large cities and unregulated housing.

The report, The Making of a Riskier Future: How Our Decisions are Shaping the Future of Disaster Risk, calls for a radical new approach to assessing risk, which takes into account extremely rapid changes in global disaster risk. Annual total damages from disasters have been increasing for decades and models show that population growth and rapid urbanization could put 1.3 billion people and $158 trillion in assets at risk from river and coastal floods by 2050.

“With climate change and rising numbers of people in urban areas rapidly driving up future risks, there’s a real danger the world is woefully unprepared for what lies ahead,”  said John Roome, the World Bank Group’s Senior Director for Climate Change. “Unless we change our approach to future planning for cities and coastal areas that takes into account potential disasters, we run the real risk of locking in decisions that will lead to drastic increases in future losses. “

In examining literature and case studies from around the globe, the report cites studies showing that densely populated coastal cities are sinking and when coupled with rising sea levels, annual losses in 136 coastal cities could increase from US$6 billion in 2010 to US$1,000 billion in 2070.

It also cites research warning that in Indonesia, river flood risk may increase 166 percent over the next 30 years due to rapid expansion of urban areas, while the country’s coastal flood risk could rise by 445 percent. Earthquake risk in Kathmandu is expected to double to 50 percent by 2045 due to informal building expansion.

At the heart of effective disaster risk management is reliable and accessible risk information. To help catalyze a move towards dynamic, accessible, and actionable risk information, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and the World Bank are also releasing ThinkHazard!the first of its kind open-source platform to provide hazard information and recommendations of how to reduce risk across eight hazards including earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and cyclones for 196 countries.

“By promoting policies that reduce risk and avoiding actions to drive up risk, we can positively influence the risk environment of the future,” said Francis Ghesquiere, Head, GFDRR Secretariat “The drivers of future risk are within the control of decision makers today. They must seize the moment.”

This month over 700 experts and thought leaders will gather in Venice to examine the critical role of technological advances in disaster risk management. The 2016 Understanding Risk Forum, hosted by GFDRR, will showcase the latest innovations, exchange ideas and form partnerships on risk identification and assessment.

Taking place in Venice, Italy, a city highly vulnerable to climate change, the Forum will host high level panels and live demonstrations from companies showcasing cutting-edge technologies.

About the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery

The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) is a global partnership that helps developing countries better understand and reduce their vulnerabilities to natural hazards and adapt to climate change. Working with over 400 local, national, regional, and international partners, GFDRR provides grant financing, technical assistance, training and knowledge sharing activities to mainstream disaster and climate risk management in policies and strategies. Managed by the World Bank, GFDRR is supported by 34 countries and 9 international organizations. For more information, please visit www.gfdrr.org.


In Venice:

Shaela Rahman
Julia Barrera

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Mehreen Sheikh
Tel : +1 (202) 458-7336

Unprepared for a Risky Future


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