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West Nile Virus and the Future of Once-Tropical Diseases

Midwest outbreak is the worst in U.S. history — and may be a sign of things to come

Molly Samuel/KQED

Mosquitoes under a microscope at the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District.

William Reisen began studying tropical diseases when he was drafted in the Vietnam War. He’d studied insects in school, so he worked as an entomologist for the Air Force. Eventually, his career led him to California, where he now heads UC Davis’s Center for Vectorborne Diseases. But even with his professional experience with mosquito-borne diseases, he says he never expected to see West Nile virus in the United States.

“Everybody was surprised,” he says. “If you were a betting person, and you wanted to guess the next virus that would cause trouble from abroad in North America, I think few of us would have expected West Nile.”

West Nile, a disease carried by birds and spread by mosquitoes, first made inroads in the U.S. in 1999, in New York. By 2003, it had reached California. In 2004 and 2005, there were hundreds of human cases; in those two years combined, 48 people in California died. Continue reading

California Examines the Health Effects of Extreme Heat

A new report looks at how to prepare for — and adapt to — a warmer world

State agencies are bracing for the public health threat from extreme heat. Heatwaves can have devastating effects on public health; in a 2006 heatwave in California, hundreds of people died [PDF]. And scientists predict in the future, heat waves will be longer, hotter and more frequent.

In the future, heat waves will be longer, hotter and more frequent.

To try to keep the health costs to a minimum, the California Climate Action Team, led by the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Public Health, is developing a plan to prepare for extreme heat[PDF].

The state’s plan addresses building codes and urban planning, state and local emergency response plans, health care system preparedness and worker safety. The recommendations include making sure the most vulnerable people can be protected from high temperatures, protecting key parts of the power grid from air-conditioner overload and planting more trees in cities. Continue reading

Hospital, Heal Thy High-Carbon Self

Kaiser, UCSF and Stanford University Medical Center are all looking for ways to get greener

By Kamal Menghrajani

Kaiser Permanente

Solar panels on the roof of Kaiser's hospital in Modesto will help the Oakland-based health care provider reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

All across California, people are looking for ways to be more eco-friendly: composting, recycling, driving less, and turning out the lights. Now it looks like hospitals in the area are following suit, as Kaiser Permanente announced new ‘green’ initiatives this week.

The Oakland-based health care provider is installing fuel cells and solar panels at its hospitals and clinics throughout the state. The huge non-profit is also turning to green building techniques for new construction projects and to save energy where possible in existing facilities.

The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30%, or a total of 264,000 metric tons, by the year 2020. Continue reading

California Likely to “Suffer Most,” Says Study

Photo: Craig Miller

California is likely to suffer more than any other state from worsening air pollution due to climate change by the end of the decade, according to a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The report finds that in 2020, “climate change-induced ozone increases” could result in nearly half a million additional cases of “serious respiratory illnesses” and add more than $729 million to the state’s health care costs. Continue reading

EJ Groups Say Suit is Not To Undo AB 32

Plaintiffs who won a tentative ruling in a suit over the state’s climate law say they’re not out to torpedo AB 32

Six environmental justice groups sued state regulators over implementation of AB 32. (Photo: Craig Miller)

The half-dozen environmental justice advocacy groups sued over state regulators’ implementation plan and won a tentative ruling in their favor, from a state court in San Francisco. A lawyer for the Oakland-based Communities for a Better Environment called the ruling “very important and exciting,” but the groups insist that they’re looking to tweak the regulations under California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, not blow it up. Continue reading

Population: The “Other” Climate Debate

Recently I saw a startling graph, plotting world population from the Middle Ages to projections for 2050. The red line remains relatively flat for several centuries, starts ramping up around the time of the 19th century Industrial Revolution, and then takes off like a Roman candle right about the time of my own birth, in the mid-1950s. Granted, the steep rise was enhanced by the drawn-out time scale of that particular graph. As you shorten the time frame you’re looking at, the slope flattens out. But the numbers paint a sobering picture on their own.

A world population graph similar to the one I saw. Image: United Nations

World population from 1750 to 2020. Extending the curve leads to 9 billion people by 2050. Source: United Nations

I decided to plot some of my own family history against that curve. When my father entered the world on the eve of the Great Depression, there were barely two billion people populating the globe. By the time I came along, the number had nudged above three billion.  This was America’s legendary Baby Boom and the beginning of the Roman candle phase (an exponential growth trajectory which continues today). Should I be so fortunate (or unfortunate) to make it to my own century mark, demographers project that by then (2055), the Earth will be asked to support more than nine billion people. That’s a tripling of the world’s population just in my (theoretical) lifetime.

Population growth seldom takes center stage in discussions of climate change, though the connection is undeniable (heck, nine billion people just breathing is a lot of CO2).

Pakistan87712955_blogBiologist William Ryerson, President of the Washington-based Population Institute, says that population growth is “not an inconsequential impact on the climate crisis.” But breathing is not the problem; it’s consumption. Appearing on KQED’s Forum program with Michael Krasny, Ryerson said that were that prediction of nine billion people by 2050 to be realized, it would be “the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.”

Ryerson, who also heads the Population Media Center in Vermont, says we’ll be lucky to make it to nine billion. Ryerson said that in his view, “the resources just aren’t there,” for a doubling of the current population. He cites research by Stanford biologist Peter Vitousek, indicating that humans are already appropriating half of the total global “products of photosynthesis, i.e. all green plants.”

It seems that after decades of being dismissed by mainstream economists, 18th-century philosopher Thomas Malthus is getting a fresh hearing. Malthus made his reputation as a doomsayer in 1798, when he wrote that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

As procreation and climate change accelerate in tandem, the two forces may place a double bind on basic resources like water (see also Gretchen Weber’s post on “peak water“). Ryerson, who recently visited Pakistan, says that nation currently has 20% of the water that they had 50 years ago, on a per-capita basis, and “they’re on a 30-year doubling time,” meaning 368 million people by 2040.

The entire Forum program is available online.

A Climate of Quietude

This week conservationists issued their annual list of the “most endangered” national parks, including two in California (Joshua Tree and Yosemite). There are many ways to measure the health of a park; the air, the water. This week on Quest radio, I examine an often overlooked vital sign: the sound. Thanks to Climate Watch contributor Sasha Khokha, Bob Roney, Bernie Krause and the staff at NPS Ft. Collins for many of the sounds you hear in that segment, nicely mixed by Ceil Muller.

Sand dune near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Sand dune near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

The quietest place I’ve ever been was in a national park and I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it was like.

Okay, “quiet” is a somewhat subjective thing. When I lived on the upper (way upper) west side of Manhattan in the 1980s, any interval without hearing a car alarm seemed like blessed relief. Quiet can be measured, of course, with sound pressure meters. Anything below about 40 decibels is pretty darn quiet for most people’s purposes (a state that I doubt was ever attained in my apartment on West 119th St.).

The National Park Service (NPS) says the quietest place it has yet measured is a spot in Great Sand Dunes National Park, where Vicki McCusker, who helps oversee the natural sounds program for the Park Service, says it was “bottoming out” their meters.

I’ve never been there but it’s hard to imagine greater quietude than an afternoon I spent in Death Valley. Coincidentally this was also on a sand dune, near Stovepipe Wells. It was also Christmas Day, which kept the tourist traffic to a minimum. It was at a point in my life when I was in desperate need of some deep introspection, so I parked my car along Highway 190 and trekked into the dunes, found an accommodating slope and sat down. Occasionally a fly (or something) would buzz by. Other than that, the loudest thing was the buzzing in my own head, which I can only hope would’ve been inaudible to anyone with me.

Looking across the dunes in Death Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Looking across the dunes in Death Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

It’s interesting how, when things get really quiet, our bodies try to make up for it with ringing ears and internal chaos. The noted bioacoustician Bernie Krause talks about the time he and his wife, Kat were hosting guests from New York, who literally had to leave the Krause’s semi-secluded Glen Ellen “sanctuary” because the night-time quiet was creeping them out.

I asked Krause what he could draw from that. “Well, it tells me that we’re more insane than I ever thought in the first place,” he mused. “I mean, we’re definitely verging on pathological.  Because it’s exactly those kinds of sounds–the urban acoustic envelope in which we enfold ourselves–that kind of urban noise that’s driving up the numbers of prescriptions for Prozac.”

Surveys of national park visitors would seem to bear that out.  In the early 1990s, NPS surveyed 15,000 visitors in 39 parks, about noise issues (NPS manages 391 “units” nationwide, 58 of which are designated as “parks”). More than nine out of ten visitors surveyed cited “enjoyment of natural quiet” as a reason for visiting. This survey provided some juice for the ongoing natural sounds program in the parks.

An open question is: where does it go from here? Much of the current effort in the parks appears to be geared toward developing “air tour management plans,” a response to concerns that first arose over the increasingly crowded skies above the Grand Canyon. McCusker told me that while aircraft overflights are the most pervasive noise issue across the parks, the most common complaint is probably over loud motorcycles (note to “straight-pipe” Harley owners).

Krause, who conducted a year-long project documenting soundscapes in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, hopes the research will also be used to develop new rules governing on-the-ground noise pollution. “If the parks can set aside places where people can go and hear the natural world as it is, at any season of the year, then that will be a really big benefit for visitors coming to the parks,” he says. “Otherwise, you’re seeing the parks with the wrong soundtrack. It’s like watching Star Wars without a soundtrack.”

Leave a comment with your own “quietest place.”

In 2003, Bernie Krause & I co-produced a short film for the National Park Service, which takes you on a 4-and-a-half-minute journey from the “urban sound envelope” to a restful spot in Sequoia National park.

Tune in to PBS this week for the premiere of Ken Burns’ new series: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Also Quest television explores the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an urban national park. This program is now available for viewing at the Quest site (see previous link).

Seeding Clouds for Hydropower

PG&E cloud seeders located near Burney Falls, CA.  Photo: PG&E

PG&E cloud seeders located near Burney Falls, CA. Photo: PG&E

Christina Aanestad’s radio feature for Climate Watch airs Monday morning on The California Report.

Wringing Hydropower Out of the Clouds

By Christina Aanestad

When cloud seeding began in the 1950’s there were no laws governing weather modification. According to Maurice Roos, Chief Hydrologist with the state Department of Water Resources (DWR), it wasn’t until the late 1970’s when a storm in a seeded area near Los Angeles flooded, that regulations governing weather modification were included in the state’s water code. In the West, “Most of the states have legislation that governs the conduct of weather modification activity,” says Brant Foote, director of the Research Applications Lab at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

Government oversight has changed over the years. Today in California, state regulations have slackened. “As for the State’s role, it is mainly informational. There are no permits or licenses,” said Roos. According to Roos, all cloud-seeding projects required permits until the law was reformed. “The old law required licenses and permits but it was repealed in the 1980’s. There was a general move toward deregulation in the government–mainly to reduce costs.” Today, according to Roos, Sponsors of cloud-seeding projects must notify DWR and county governments of the project, “This can be a letter or, for DWR, an e-mail notice,” he said. “They also have to publish a Notice of Intention in the county or counties affected by their proposed operations.”

Most of what this reporter learned was from Roos’ institutional memory, and going directly to sponsors of cloud-seeding operations–about 15 intermittent projects around the state. Data on cloud seeding at the state level is scattered, according to Roos. “We used to have an annual report that was published. Last time I tried to find it, it was in an archived box and nobody knew where it was,” said Roos, who added that budget cuts and deregulation mostly gutted the oversight program.

Despite lax oversight, the State of California wants to use weather modification as part of its 2009 Water Plan, which states:

“Cloud seeding has advantages over many other strategies for providing water. A project can be developed and implemented relatively quickly…it could offset some of the loss in snow pack expected from global warming.”

According to the plan, some regulation remains: weather modification sponsors need to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA]. But not all seeding has to comply with environmental regulations. PG&E contends that an environmental impact report is not required for its Pit-McCloud River project because it is privately funded, with equipment on private lands,” said Roos.

That has locals groups near Mount Shasta concerned with PG&E’s proposed project in the Pit and McCloud River watersheds. “It’s a clear unequal treatment between public agencies and private entities,” said Angelina Cook with the Climate Council and the Mount Shasta Community Rights Project. “Private corporations require more government oversight and regulation to ensure accountability for the their practices.” But compiling all cloud-seeding data in California into one reference source today would be “a labor of love,” says Roos. “There’s no funds for it,” he said.

Cook says she is working on a cloud-seeding ban in Mount Shasta City, which may include a chemical trespass for silver iodide, the common chemical used in cloud seeding. “If silver iodide is found in the area, PG&E would be liable,” said Cook.
But Roos, who says cloud seeding is mostly benign, asks where one would draw the line. “There’s all kinds of influences on the air like people driving their cars, diesel trucks running around,” said Roos. Just as California has increased its regulations on air emissions in the state, some like Cook would like to see tougher regulations for weather modification as well.

Meanwhile, the state’s 2009 water plan also urges more research and development into cloud-seeding. Research could include cloud seeding’s impact on global climate change, and it’s effectiveness. The plan also identifies areas that could provide optimal results from cloud seeding, mostly in Northern California, along the Sacramento, Trinity and Russian Rivers.

Cloud Seeding Projects in California

View Cloud Seeding Projects in California in a larger map

To find references to cloud-seeding in the state’s water plan, look under Volume 3, then for “Precipitation Enhancement.”

Plan Moves Climate Adaptation to Front Burner

A one-fifth reduction in per capita water use by 2020 is among the goals outlined in a new state report on adapting to climate change.

Released by the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) as a “discussion draft,”  the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy is being billed as the nation’s first comprehensive game plan for adaptation to climate change.

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

Most of the state’s high-profile climate initiatives (and battles) have been about mitigation; how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow down warming. This report swings the spotlight over to adaptation; what needs to be done to accommodate the climate change effects that are already “in the pipeline.”

While the California’s centerpiece climate law was passed three years ago, this week’s CNRA report concedes that “adaptation is a relatively new concept in California policy.” The 161-page white paper comes in response to an executive order from the Governor last fall, calling for a statewide adaptation strategy.

The draft divides the strategy into seven “sectors:” Public health, biodiversity and habitat, ocean and coastal resources, water, agriculture, and forestry.

Tony Brunello, Deputy Secretary for Climate Change and Energy at CNRA, says “This is the first report that really looks at how climate change is going to impact the state and what we need to do about it.”

But Brunello stopped short of conceding that mitigation is a lost cause. “You only have half a deck if you’re only focused on mitigation,” he said. “You need to focus on both mitigation and adaptation to truly be prepared.”

Some strategies attack both. Brunello points to water conservation measures, which save both water and energy (20% of the energy used in the state is deployed moving water around).

The plan is designed to work in consort with the California Air Resources Board’s implementation plan for AB-32, the state’s multifaceted attack on greenhouse gas emissions. CNRA says one of its goals is to “enhance” existing efforts, rather than create new programs and offices that need funding.

CNRA also promises to use the “best available science in identifying climate change risks and adaptation strategies.” Andrew Revkin has a useful overview of the mounting challenges to climate scientists, published this week in the New York Times.

One planned product from the adaptation plan is an interactive website devoted to climate adaptation, with maps and data to assist local planners. CNRA hopes to have that in place by early next year. The draft plan now enters a 45-day period for public comment.

Parsing the White House Climate Report

At least one researcher cited in the 196-page climate impacts report issued this week by the Obama administration is not impressed with the final product. Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado’s Center for Science & Technology Research has written a blog post critical of the report and in particular, the way in which his work was interpreted. If you’d rather not plow through the entire post, John Tierney has an overview of Pielke’s critique on his blog for the New York Times.

California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

2004 California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

The report was arguably the first to break down both observed and projected effects of climate change into coherent regional summaries. For the purposes of the report, California was considered part of the Southwest region, which included states as far east as Colorado and New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, many of the points raised in the Southwest section (beginning on p. 129) have to do with water supply. Most have been reported or discussed in our Climate Watch coverage, either here or in our radio reports. Selected “highlights” include:

- Past climate records based on changes in Colorado River flows indicate that drought is a frequent feature of the Southwest, with some of the longest documented “megadroughts” on Earth.

- The prospect of future droughts becoming more severe as a result of global warming is a significant concern, especially because the Southwest continues to lead the nation in population growth.

- Human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest. Recent warming is among the most rapid in the nation, significantly more than the global average in some areas.

- Projections suggest continued strong warming, with much larger increases under higher emissions scenarios compared to lower emissions scenarios. Projected summertime temperature increases are greater than the annual average increases in some parts of the region, and are likely to be exacerbated locally by expanding urban
heat island effects.

- Water supplies in some areas of the Southwest are already becoming limited, and this trend toward scarcity is likely to be a harbinger of future water shortages. Groundwater pumping is lowering water tables, while rising temperatures reduce river flows in vital rivers including the Colorado.

- Projected temperature increases, combined with river-flow reductions, will increase the risk of water conflicts between sectors, states, and even nations.

- Increasing temperature, drought, wildfire, and invasive species will accelerate transformation of the landscape.

- Under higher emissions scenarios, high-elevation forests in California, for example, are projected to decline by 60 to 90 percent before the end of the century.

- In California, two-thirds of the more than 5,500 native plant species are projected to experience range reductions up to 80 percent before the end of this century under projected warming.

- Projected changes in the timing and amount of river flow, particularly in winter and spring, is estimated to more than double the risk of Delta flooding events by mid-century, and result in an eight-fold increase before the end of the century.

- A steady reduction in winter chilling could have serious economic impacts on fruit and nut production in the region. California’s losses due to future climate change are estimated between zero and 40 percent for wine and table grapes, almonds, oranges, walnuts, and avocados, varying significantly by location.

By the way, Pielke’s critique does not directly address anything in this list, though his work does involve weather-related disasters, which would include floods. Asked by a commentator on his blog if he thinks the entire report should be dismissed based on the flawed interpretation of his research, Pielke replied: “I wouldn’t think so and would certainly hope not. At the same time the section which covers my research does not give me a lot of confidence in the process that led to the report.”