To mark this anniversary, local artist Scott LoBaido created a temporary installation in his home borough. Honoring each local victim, he constructed unique figures out of chicken wire and battery-operated LED lights. Scattered across Midland Beach, the display is a poignant reminder of the deadly storm and the dangers of rising sea levels. It is on view through 11 PM on October 30.
Art installation honors Sandy victims on Staten Island. Credit: Staten Island Advance
Last week, I was in Pittsburgh, PA to serve as a Mentor at a Climate Reality Project training event. Having never been in that part of the country before, I spent a few extra days to explore the area. The overall experience felt like a road trip through US environmental history and was a great reminder that large-scale changes are possible, especially in this era of climate policy backpedaling.
First stop: Donora, PA. This Pittsburgh suburb was the site of the “Killer Smog of 1948”. As the longtime home of the Donora Zinc Works Factory and the American Steel and Wire Plant, smoke-filled skies were not unusual here in the early part of the 20th century. In October 1948, however, the air turned deadly. An inversion layer, a weather phenomenon where the temperature in the atmosphere increases with height instead of decreasing, trapped emissions from the factories. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisonous gases created a thick, yellowish smog. It hung over the area until the weather pattern changed five days later. As a result, twenty-six people died and thousands of others became ill.
This tragedy garnered national attention and spurred federal regulations on air pollution. In 1955, Congress provided funding for pollution research and later passed the Clean Air Act of 1963. In 1970, the EPA was created and Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments, which established national air quality standards.
Donora is proud of their role in this change in national environmental policy. Outside of their local Historical Society/Smog Museum is a sign that says “Clean Air Started Here”.
Another highlight of this trip was Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeastern Ohio. Established as a National Recreation Area in 1974 and upgraded to a National Park in 2000, it reclaimed and now preserves the natural landscape along twenty-two miles of the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland, OH. While relatively small, the river is an icon of American environmental history.
Starting in the late 1800s, the river became highly industrialized. For more than a century, the steel mills and factories that lined its banks dumped untreated waste directly into the river. The Cuyahoga became so polluted that it caught on fire thirteen times.
The last time was June 22, 1969, when sparks from a passing train ignited the oil and debris floating in the water. This fire, while not the largest or deadliest in the river’s history, caught the attention of Time Magazine and became national news. Appearing in their August 1 issue, the article described the Cuyahoga as a river that “oozes rather than flows”.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, river fires were common and seen as the price of industrial progress and prosperity. By the 1960’s, however, that way of thinking was starting to change. The country was becoming more environmentally aware and the Cuyahoga River fire put a national spotlight on the need to protect waterways from industrial pollution. The event helped to galvanize the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972.
In the years since, the Cuyahoga River has made an amazing comeback. Bald Eagles – a symbolic emblem of this country – have returned to fish its waters and nest along its banks. In 1998, it was designated as an American Heritage River to recognize its historical significance.
Today, our environmental challenge is the carbon pollution that drives climate change. Its solution, as with conservation issues in the past, lies with policy adjustments. While these types of large changes can sometimes seem impossible, history reminds us that they are not. All that is required is the will to act. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.
Cuyahoga River, past and present. Credit: Cleveland State University Library
Nicaragua has announced that it will sign the Paris Climate Agreement. This move leaves Syria and the United States as the only two countries that are not participating in the historic pact.
Years in the making, the Paris Agreement of 2015 set the target of holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, nearly 200 countries submitted individual voluntary emissions reduction plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Based on the current collection of NDCs, the agreement will only cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half of what is necessary to reach the 2°C (3.6°F) goal. It does, however, legally obligate countries to publically report how much emissions they have actually eliminated and to ratchet up their plans every five years.
Nicaragua initially rejected the deal, saying it did not go far enough to fight climate change. They were particularly skeptical of the voluntary pledge system and the lack of an enforcement mechanism for countries that did not live up to their commitments.
Their position, however, has now changed. In a radio interview, Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s Vice-President and First Lady, said: “Despite not being the ideal agreement, it is the only instrument we have in the world that allows the unity of intentions and efforts to face up to climate change and natural disasters.”
Nicaragua’s decision to join the Paris Agreement comes just weeks before the next UN Climate Change Conference – COP23 – begins in Bonn, Germany. There, delegates from all the signatories will flesh out the rules of the accord, discuss setting more ambitious emission-cutting targets for 2020, and negotiate the universal sticking point of how to pay for the impacts of climate change.
Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month with September 2017 marking the fourth warmest September ever recorded on this planet. Only September 2014, 2015, and 2016 were warmer.
According to the State of the Climate Report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for the month – over both land and sea surfaces – was 60.4°F. That is 1.4°F above the 20th-century average. September was also the 393rd consecutive month with a global temperature above its long-term norm. That means the last time any month posted a below average reading was December 1984.
While heat dominated most of the planet in September, some places were particularly warm, including much of Canada and parts of Asia. For the contiguous US, the month ranked among the warmest third of the historical record.
These soaring temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. ENSO-neutral conditions prevailed in September, which means there was neither an El Niño nor a La Niña to influence global weather patterns.
Year to date, the first nine months of 2017 were the second warmest such period of any year on record. Global temperature records date back to 1880.
Ophelia peaked as a category-3 hurricane near the Azores over the weekend, becoming the most intense storm ever observed that far north and east in the Atlantic Basin. Then, it rapidly transitioned to a post-tropical storm that was labeled Ex-Hurricane Ophelia by Met Éireann, Ireland’s national weather service. This means the storm was drawing energy from the difference in air masses rather than the heat and moisture of the ocean.
Despite this technical downgrade, Ophelia still packed a punch. The storm’s powerful winds, which averaged around 57mph, uprooted trees and downed power lines. It also produced significant storm surge flooding along the country’s west coast. Officials say at least three fatalities have been reported and more than 300,000 people are without power.
At Fastnet Rock, off the coast of County Cork, a wind gust of 119mph was reported. If confirmed, it will be the fastest wind gust ever recorded in Ireland.
On the eastern side of the storm, smoke and dust from the wildfires burning in Spain and Portugal were funneled northward over the UK. This caused the sun and sky to appear red in a large part of the region.
It is not unheard of for Europe to be hit by the remnants of a hurricane. However, the storms typically travel west across the Atlantic Ocean in the Trade Winds and then re-curve to the northeast if they do not make landfall in the US, Mexico, or the Caribbean. Ophelia, however, skipped the transatlantic voyage and moved northeast toward Europe after forming southwest of the Azores.
Scientists say the storm’s rapid intensification and unusual track are the result of warmer than normal sea surface temperatures at northern latitudes and a steering current known as the mid-latitude jet stream. This current of air flows from west to east and carried the storm toward Ireland.
As of Thursday, according to CalFire, 22 wildfires are burning in the Golden State. They have scorched over 190,000 acres and forced the evacuation of entire neighborhoods. Officials say at least 26 people have been killed and more than 400 are missing. In terms of property damage, they conservatively estimate that 3,500 homes and structures have been destroyed.
The smoke and ash from these fires are also causing widespread air quality issues. In the Bay Area, well outside of the burn zone, air quality reached historically poor levels this week.
These huge fires are largely the result of climate whiplash. California has distinct wet and dry seasons, but they have been extreme recently. After years of drought, this winter brought the state record amounts of precipitation that spurred explosive new plant growth. Then during the summer, which was the state’s warmest on record and unusually dry, all that vegetation turned to tinder.
Making matters worse, the region’s seasonal winds known as the Diablo Winds began blowing over the weekend. They reportedly reached speeds as high as 70mph in some areas. Blowing east to west, these winds warm from compression as they flow downslope from the mountains towards the coast and dry out vegetation even further. They also fan the flames of any fire already burning and can cause it to spread very quickly.
The Diablo Winds are essentially the same type of air current as the famous Santa Ana winds in southern California. They only really differ in location and name. The Diablo Winds are named for Mount Diablo in the East Bay area and the Santa Ana Winds are the namesake of Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County.
Wildfires are not unusual in California, but this outbreak is considered one of the worst in state history. The exact cause of the fires is still unknown.
Wildfire burns near Glen Ellen, CA. Credit: The SF Chronicle
Hurricane Nate, the 14th named storm of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season, made two landfalls along the US Gulf Coast this weekend. The first was near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana and the second was near Biloxi, Mississippi.
Coming ashore with 85mph winds, this category-1 hurricane generated a significant storm surge that swamped parts of the region from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle. One of the hardest hit areas was Pascagoula, MS where a storm surge of 6.3 feet was reported. The storm also downed trees and caused widespread power outages.
Moving inland, Nate was soon downgraded to a tropical depression. However, it still spawned a number of destructive tornados from Alabama to North Carolina. They ranged in strength from EF-0 to EF-2.
Nate was the first hurricane to make landfall in Mississippi since Katrina in 2005.
There are a number of key indicators, beyond our rising global temperature, that show Earth’s climate is changing. One of these is Arctic sea ice.
Measured via satellite since the late 1970’s, the extent and thickness of sea ice tend to vary from year to year but both have been in an overall decline for decades. According to NASA, the melt season in the Arctic has increased by 37 days since 1979.
Sea ice extent, the area of ocean with at least 15% sea ice, has a strong seasonal cycle. It typically peaks in March as winter ends and then declines during the summer, reaching a minimum in September. In March 2017, it hit a record low maximum for the third year in a row. The record minimum occurred in September 2012.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the average age of Arctic sea ice is also changing. Thick multi-year ice – the ice that lasts through at least one melt season – has decreased 11% per decade since the satellite era began. That means there is more first-year ice, which tends to be thin and brittle. This is troublesome because it is more vulnerable to warming temperatures and wave action.
Sea ice is frozen ocean water. It forms, grows, and melts in the ocean. In contrast to land ice (glaciers), it does not contribute to sea level rise. However, as it melts it creates a global warming feedback loop. Ice is lighter in color and reflects more sunlight than dark ocean water. So, as more ocean water is exposed, more of the sun’s energy is absorbed. This drives temperatures up even further and causes more ice to melt.
The Arctic is now warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet – a phenomenon known as “Arctic amplification.” At this rate, scientists expect the region to be ice-free in summer by the 2030s.
September 2017 felt like a temperature roller coaster in New York City. Highs ranged from an unseasonably cool 66°F to a record warm 91°F. But with eighteen of the month’s thirty days posting above average readings, the heat won out in the end. The city’s mean temperature for September was 70.5°F, which 2.5°F above average.
In terms of precipitation, the month was mostly dry. Only 2.0 inches of rain was measured in Central Park, marking the third month in a row to deliver below average rainfall. The city usually gets 4.28 inches of rain in September.