Category Archives: Natural Disasters

How Climate Change Turns Up the Flames of Fire Season

Image result for wildfire

Image: Kent Santa Rosa Press Democrat

The wildfires raging in Northern California, which have so far torched more than 270 square miles, killed 40 people, forced thousands to flee, destroyed about 5,700 structures and spread smoke to communities for hundreds of miles around, are a burning sign of things to come.

Here in Oakland, Calif., where I’m currently working, about 50 miles south of most of the fires, I do my errands and even sit around the not-exactly-airtight apartment wearing an N95-rated respirator mask. Stores can’t keep them on the shelves. Oakland is said to have the country’s worst air this week — second only to the city of Napa and on par with a bad day in Beijing, China (as I write this,  Oaktown’s air quality index, or AQI, is 172, rated “unhealthy” by the EPA; another source, more frequently updated, is The whole San Francisco Bay Area smells like a campfire, and not in a good way.

Many experts agree that climate change has been worsening wildfires in the western U.S. and elsewhere for years by making winters shorter and wetter and the following fire season longer and drier. Climate change also kicks up higher winds and sparks more frequent lightning. And the fires’ carbon emissions exacerbate climate change, which causes more fires, which increases climate change, and so on. It’s a deadly feedback loop. California’s historic drought capped by a soaking-wet last winter and then a hot, dry summer makes these fires a terrible case in point.

For a list of ways to help those in need, click here.

Read more:

Here’s What We Know About Wildfires and Climate Change — Scientific American (reprinted from ClimateWire)

How Climate Change Is ‘Turning Up the Dail’ on California Wildfires — CBS News

Did Climate Change Fuel California’s Devastating Fires? Probably. — MIT Technology Review

The Climate Change Fire Alarm From Northern California — Los Angeles Times

Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks? — Union of Concerned Scientists

Briefing: Deadly Sonoma Fire Now Partially Contained; Oakland’s Air Quality Is 2nd Worst in Nation After Napa — East Bay Express

Climate Change Indicators: Wildfires — EPA (Hey, is that a reference to climate change on a federal government website? It’s like seeing a unicorn.)

Related posts:

California Drought: Overcoming History to Reduce SoCal Water Waste

Past, Present and Future: California’s Epic Struggle With Water

Civilization Lost: California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

A Grim Climate Change Forecast for the U.S.

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Filed under Climate Change, Drought, Natural Disasters, North America

California Drought: Overcoming History to Reduce SoCal Water Waste


The great news for California in the winter of 2015-2016 is that El Nino-generated storms are on the increase, right? Well , that’s good news for easing the California drought, but with caveats. It’s much greater news if even more rain (and snow) fall in Northern California than in Southern California. The north has more catchment systems than the south. In other words, the north catches, saves and provides more water than the south can.

Why? Northern areas have river systems and reservoirs that redirect water to the south (mainly) via aqueducts. Moisture falling in the south and running off land is more readily fed to the Pacific Ocean, because much of the system there, especially in Los Angeles itself, is allowed and even intended to drain into the Pacific to avoid catastrophic flooding and landslides, like those seen from major storms in the 1930s and later. In other words, the massive waste of freshwater was actually a safety measure. Law was adjusted by climate. Until recently, in fact, it was illegal to capture rain on your own roof in LA. The California Water Capture Act of 2012 eased that outdated policy.

And, fortunately, on Jan. 6 the California State Water Resources Control Board approved a broad plan to capture more rain, The Associated Press reported. About $200 million will fund projects to collect rain, as part of a $7.5 billion water bond voters approved in November 2014. Los Angeles expects to collect an additional 3.3 billion gallons a year from new projects, over the roughly 10 billion it says it collects now. But even that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what SoCal could do in wet years if rainwater collection were made a genuine priority.

Related posts:

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’ s Depletion of Groundwater

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Learn more:

Much of the torrential that fell on Southern California this week flowed right into the ocean – Associated Press

Rainwater harvesting regulations state by state – Enlight Inc. blog

Building Sponge City: Redesigning LA for Long-Term Drought – Cities Project, NPR

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC


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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, Law, Natural Disasters, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Water, Water Resources, Water Shortage

A Grim Climate-Change Forecast for the U.S.



Before too long, much of South Florida could be underwater. Alaskan forests could die at increasing rates as melting permafrost releases methane into the atmosphere. Rising oceans could make storm surges even more devastating to East Coast cities, even as drought and wildfires torment the Southwest. Those are just a handful of examples among many. The new National Climate Assessment came out on Tuesday in the U.S., bringing alarming news of how climate change, unless curbed by  drastic changes in human behavior — if that’s even possible at this point — will wreak havoc on different regions in different ways. About 300 scientists from academia, government and the private sector contributed to the report.

Read more:

Climate Disruptions, Close to HomeThe New York Times Editorial Board

Obama Administration Releases Third National Climate Assessment for the United States – NOAA

U.S. National Climate Assessment – U.S. Global Change Research Program (

Related posts: 

Environmentalists See Coming Collapse, Push ‘Uncivilisation’ in an ‘Age of Ecocide’

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

At the Point of Peak Water, Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

Civilization Lost? California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

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Filed under Climate Change, Drought, Environment, Industry, Natural Disasters, North America, Pollution, Research, Water Resources

Top 5 Non-Lethal Uses for Drones

Image: Flying Eye

Image: Flying Eye

Happiness is not a police state, and unmanned aerial vehicles aren’t just for the war machine anymore. Though many of us associate drones with bomb strikes and government surveillance, their civilian use is growing more widespread and attracting massive investment. It’s going to go far beyond recent headline grabbers (e.g., Domino’s pizza-delivery tests and CEO Jeff Bezos saying on “60 Minutes” that deliveries by drone will be off the ground in 2015, depending on FAA approval). Essentially, anything that calls for a bird’s-eye view, aerial photgraphy, or lightweight deliveries can benefit from drone service. In no particular order, here are five favorites, already underway:

Monitoring and protecting wildlife.  Some early indicators suggest drones are better at spotting wildlife than people in planes and helicopters are, while also reducing costs and risks to human life. Researchers have found success deploying drones to survey dugongs, a vegetarian marine mammal related to the manatee, in Shark Bay, on the western Australia coast. The U.S. Geological Survey uses drones to count sandhill crane populations. The devices are also used to track endangered Sumatran orangutans.

Delivering medicine. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $100,000 grant to George Barbastathis and collaborators at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in the U.S. They’re working on unmanned aerial vehicles that health care workers can deploy via cell phones to swiftly deliver vaccines and the like.

3-D mapping for everyone. Using a lightweight drone and powerful new software, almost anyone will soon be able to create precise 3-D maps for any number of uses, such as crop management, facilities monitoring and disaster relief operations.  Watch Pix4D co-founder Olivier Kung’s TEDx talk on the subject.

Search-and-rescue. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported what they believed to be the first use of a drone to rescue an accident victim. After a late-night car accident in remote Saskatchewan in May 2013, an injured and disoriented man called police but couldn’t report his location. Worse, he wandered far from the crash site.  A helicopter search failed to find the man, even with night-vision gear, but an unmanned drone with an infrared camera did the job. Without it, he would not have survived the night.

Hurricane tracking. Improvements in drone technology have increased the aircraft’s range and flying time, making them invaluable for gathering weather data. An airplane can’t safely stay inside a hurricane for 30 hours, as some drones can.  NASA and Northrop Grumman have teamed up on a $30 million project to monitor storms as they evolve. A University of Florida project is looking at doing similar work with swarms of tiny drones.

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Environment, Industry, Natural Disasters, North America, Oceans, Research, Technology

Innovative Device Saves Lives in Philippines After Typhoon Haiyan

Image: M-100 Chlorintor, courtesy of WaterStep

Image: M-100 Chlorinator, courtesy of WaterStep

Natural disasters often knock out access to clean water, which can make thirst and disease bigger causes of death than the catastrophe itself. When a massive storm like Typhoon Haiyan strikes a large, densely populated landmass like the Philippines, the risk to health is widespread, ongoing and a huge challenge to large aid organizations.

Shipments of bottled water help, but they’re expensive to execute, they may not reach everyone, and they cause waste. That’s why WaterStep and its small water purifiers make for such a compelling story, as reported by and Fast Company. The Louisville, Kentucky-based nonprofit group sent 60 of its M-100 Chlorinators over to the stricken nation, piggybacked on a flight of volunteer college kids who would act as couriers. The devices would be distributed in remote areas by newly trained nonprofit workers from the Philippines’ second-largest population center, Cebu City, which was spared by Haiyan and has been a staging area for relief operations.

Each device, about the size of a 2-liter soda bottle, with tubes sticking out, can chlorinate about 1,000 gallons (3,785 liters) of water per hour, or 10,000 gallons (38,000 liters) per day, using some table salt and a basic power source, such as a car battery or a solar panel. The byproducts, chlorine and sodium hydroxide, can be mixed to make a saline solution or used separately as disinfectants.

Another technology created for WaterStep bears mentioning, though not necessarily in the context of disaster relief. The group distributes the Water Ball, a durable sphere with handles that can be filled with water and rolled.  In many parts of the world with limited access to clean water, women and children are burdened with the task of carrying water great distances daily; the Water Ball is meant to make it easier to carry more water more quickly.

Read more:

Andri Antoniades reports on WaterStep’s work in

Stan Alcorn writes about WaterStep for Fast Company.

WaterStep’s technologies.

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Filed under Asia, Bottled Water, Human rights, Natural Disasters, NGOs, Oceans, Technology