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Why Wildfires Are Burning Bigger and Hotter

A century of fire suppression means there are more trees to burn, and they burn more dramatically

This has been a devastating wildfire season. Nationwide, more acres have burned this summer than at this time in any other year on record. In May and June, New Mexico weathered the largest fire in its history. Hundreds of homes and tens of thousands of acres have burned in Colorado. As the summer wears on, fire season has moved west — as it tends to do – and now the Ponderosa Fire is raging near Redding.

Has it always been like this? A new NPR series by Christopher Joyce explores what a century of fire suppression has meant for forests in the Southwest.


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12 Million Californians ‘Highly Vulnerable’ to Climate Change — Now What?

Color-coding climate risks in the Golden State

Tim Walton / Photo One

Wildfires can leave little to salvage for homeowners caught in harm's way.

Climate change will disproportionately affect California’s most disadvantaged and isolated communities, according to a recent report from the Pacific Institute.

By looking at a broad array of factors – from social indicators such as income and birth rates, to environmental ones such as tree cover and impervious surfaces – the Oakland-based think tank has found that 12.4 million Californians live in census tracts with high “social vulnerability” to climate change.

This vulnerability can play out in various ways, says Heather Cooley, co-director of the institute’s water program and a lead author of the report. “In low-income communities, many people may not have insurance,” Cooley told me. “So when a flood or fire hits their homes, they may not be able to rebuild. If they’re suffering from a heat-related illness, they may not be able to seek treatment and their health may deteriorate as a result.” Continue reading

Jerry Brown’s Anti-Anti-Climate Science Site

California governor posts a direct rebuttal to climate change contrarians

Governor Brown is pushing back against those who deny the evidence for climate change and this week, used a Lake Tahoe environmental conference to say that he’s taken his campaign online.

Governor's Office of Planning & Research

Jerry Brown's new website is a countermeasure against climate science "deniers."

The Governor has long been a vocal supporter of climate action but his new “Just the Facts” website represents his most definitive reaction against what he calls “the deniers” of widely accepted climate science.

About half the site is devoted to a rehash of the evidence that global warming is real and effects are happening now. The other half is a rebuttal to climate science contrarians, whom the site describes as, “a small-but-vocal group” that “has spread misinformation about the science, aiming to cast doubt on well-established findings and conclusions.” Continue reading

Heat Wave: California Takes its Turn

Forecast for inland temperatures to stay in the triple-digits this week

High temperatures in the Central Valley are expected to last through the end of the week.

America’s heat wave has caught up with California — at least the inland areas.

Sacramento has had six consecutive days above 100 degrees; an excessive heat warning is in effect from Merced to Bakersfield; and on Saturday Modesto tied its record for highest temperature for the date, at 105 degrees.

“In general, we’re about ten-to-fifteen degrees above normal for this time of year,” Holly Osborne, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento told me. “Today will be our sixth day of 100 or above in Sacramento, and we’re looking at temperatures being 100 or above for the rest of the week.” Osborne expects things to cool off, “moving into the weekend.” Continue reading

Surge in Battery Research Fuels Hope for Cheaper Electric Cars

Revelations in lithium battery technology could mean cheaper batteries and less sticker shock for electric cars

Matt Beardsley

Stanford scientists Mike Toney and Johanna Nelson inspect a transmission X-ray microscope, a powerful device that takes nano-scale images of chemical reactions in batteries while they are running.

Imagine if Tesla, Nissan and GM could cut the price of their electric cars by 25%. That electric dream may be a wee bit closer than you think, thanks to researchers at Stanford University.

Recently a team from Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory announced a new method to analyze and potentially improve rechargeable battery technology in a radical way. A cheap, reliable rechargeable battery is the holy grail for electric carmakers that rely on costly lithium ion batteries for power. Instead of the usual pairing of a lithium compound with graphite, the study examined lithium-sulfur batteries, which in theory can store five times more energy at a significantly lower cost.

“Sulfur is an earth-abundant element and offers the greatest potential to reduce cost,” said research co-author Michael Toney, head of the Materials Sciences Division at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.

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No Relief in Latest California Climate Assessment

But hope persists that we can blunt the worst impacts, if not slow down the warming

Craig Miller

The new normal? A temperature display in the Kern County town of Taft shows 105 degrees on a late afternoon in July.

Granted, it’s been a relatively cool summer in many parts of California. But state officials are saying, “Don’t get used to it.” How would you like to see the number of “extremely hot” days (105 or hotter) in Sacramento increase fivefold in the next few decades? That’s just one of many new projections from the state’s latest official climate assessment.

One hundred-twenty scientists worked on the report, entitled California’s Changing Climate (PDF). Funded by the California Energy Commission, it’s actually a portfolio of studies and contains some of the most specific warnings we’ve seen. For instance, it projects that going forward, average temperatures in the state will warm at three times last century’s pace. It’ll mean heat waves happening more often and lasting longer. Continue reading

Precipitation Trends Reveal a New North-South Split in California

“Extreme” rain and snow events happening more often in the south, less often up north

Craig Miller

Rare summer rain clouds approach a farming valley near the Coast Range, west of Bakersfield.

A new report suggests that global warming is playing out quite differently in California, depending on whether it’s north or south of San Francisco Bay.

The project, by the Environment California Research & Policy Center, studied precipitation trends between 1948 and 2011, with an eye on “extreme” events — storms that dumped unusual amounts of rain or snow on the state.

They found a dichotomy in California — but not the usual “north has all the water” split. It turns out that north of San Francisco Bay, the extreme precipitation events were happening 26% less often, but south of the Bay, they were happening 35% more often. The authors calculate that a storm that used to come along once a year on average, is happening more like once every nine months to the south, which includes the Central Coast. In fact, Santa Barbara showed the biggest increase in frequency, 72% since 1948. Continue reading

Rising Seas Threaten California’s Coastal Past

Higher tides and increased erosion will wipe out archaeological sites

Hear the radio version of this story from KQED’s The California Report.

Mike Newland

A site with evidence of more than 1,000 years of occupation is eroding due to high tides hitting the base of the cliff.

On a sunny day earlier this summer at Point Reyes National Seashore, I scrambled behind Mike Newland as he clambered across gullies and bushwhacked through thigh-high lupine. Once we got to the spot he was aiming for, on the edge of a sandy beach-side cliff, he stopped and started to pick through shells and stones.

“You can see, we’ve got sort of a handful of little guys here, popping out of the ground,” he noted. Some of these that we’re going to see, they weren’t here a year ago, when I came here last time.”

Newland, an archaeologist at Sonoma State University and the president of the Society for California Archaeology, was hunting for Native American artifacts, clues about what life was like in coastal California before Europeans arrived. It was easy for him to find them; wind, rain and tides have eroded these cliffs and exposed the ancient trash piles and stone tools.

This site and these cultural resources — some of them a thousand years old or more — might not be around for much longer. These pieces of California’s history are in danger of disappearing as the Pacific Ocean claws at the base of this cliff. Sea level rise is accelerating the problem. Continue reading

Understanding the U.S. Drought and Heatwave: Five Good Visuals

As the drought drags on, these graphics and interactives explain what’s happening

Scott Olson/Getty Images

1. “Drought’s Footprint”The New York Times

In June, more than half of the U.S. was experiencing moderate to extreme drought. How does that compare to other years? The Times’ graphic lays it out.

2. “Dried Out: Confronting the Texas Drought” — NPR, KUT and KUHF

The drought began in Texas in October of last year. Watch it grow over time, and explore a timeline that explains the root causes of the drought and how communities are responding.

3. “Flash Drought in U.S. Explained in 14 Seconds”Climate Central

Watch an animation showing the spread of the drought, from Texas and Georgia in March, to most of the Midwest and West by June.

4. Drought Impact Reporter — The National Drought Mitigation Center

This is “the nation’s first comprehensive database of drought impacts.” Submit reports of how the drought affects you, and search for drought impacts by state, whether they’re to agriculture, industry, public health or wildlife.

5. “Historic heat wave in hindsight: Hottest on record in Washington D.C., hotter than 1930″Washington Post

From the Post’s weather blog, a local, numbers-heavy analysis of the heatwave that hit Washington. With stats like “Longest period at or above 100: 7 hours on July 7 (tie with July 6, 2010 and July 21, 1930),” it’s like a Guinness Book of World Records for D.C.’s summer, and holds my usually California-focused attention.

Drought Has Ties to La Niña, with Global Warming Assist

La Niña has been linked to historical droughts, including the Dust Bowl

By

Scott Olson/Getty Images

A cow feeds in a drought-damaged pasture as temperatures climb near 100 degrees on July 17, 2012 near Princeton, Indiana.

Driven by a combination of natural climate variability, manmade global warming, and plain old bad luck, drought conditions are so widespread in the U.S. that it’s possible to take a cross-country flight from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco — a distance of approximately 2,400 miles — without once overflying an unaffected area. With about 81 percent of the lower 48 states experiencing at least abnormally dry conditions, and 63 percent mired in moderate-to-exceptional drought, it’s becoming harder and harder to find an oasis. And the dog days of August are yet to come.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) already ranks this drought as one of the worst on record, comparable to the drought events of the 1950s. The last time there were such widespread drought conditions in the corn-growing region of the country was in 1988, and that drought cost at least $40 billion.

Given this summer’s punishing 1-2 punch of dry weather and heat, this drought is also being compared to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Continue reading