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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: How are droughts and wildfires caused by global warming? I thought warming mostly brought on wet and flooded conditions.
—David Mossman, Albuquerque, NM

By throwing the planet’s climate out of whack, global warming is likely to cause more extreme weather events -- and not just rain, snow and flooding but more droughts and wildfires, too, sometimes within the same regions that at other times experience extreme wet weather.

Photo © iStockPhoto

By throwing the planet’s climate regulation systems out of whack, global warming is likely to cause more extreme weather events of every kind, including additional precipitation and flooding in some cases and more drying and drought in others—sometimes within the same region.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a leading non-profit, increased temperatures on the Earth’s surface due to global warming accelerates evapotranspiration, an otherwise natural process that takes moisture from land, plants and water bodies and moves it skyward into the atmosphere.

“In drier regions, evapotranspiration may produce periods of drought—defined as below-normal levels of rivers, lakes and groundwater, and lack of enough soil moisture in agricultural areas,” reports UCS. “Precipitation has declined in the tropics and subtropics since 1970. Southern Africa, the Sahel region of Africa, southern Asia, the Mediterranean, and the U.S. Southwest, for example, are getting drier.” Even areas that are typically wet, says the group, can experience long, dry spells between extreme rainy periods.

This drying trend is expected to continue through mid-century as the amount of land affected by drought grows significantly. Water resources in affected areas are predicted to decline by as much as 30 percent. “These changes occur partly because of an expanding atmospheric circulation pattern known as the Hadley Cell—in which warm air in the tropics rises, loses moisture to tropical thunderstorms, and descends in the subtropics as dry air,” adds UCS. “As jet streams continue to shift to higher latitudes, and storm patterns shift along with them, semi-arid and desert areas are expected to expand.”

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) adds that the sea level rise expected to accompany global warming (as the polar ice caps melt) could further complicate matters for water-constrained areas by contaminating critical inland underground freshwater reserves with salt (so-called “saltwater intrusion”).

Another effect of unmitigated global warming will be a increased frequency of large wildfires and an expansion of burned over areas in already fire-prone regions like much of the Western U.S. NWF reports that researchers there are already noticing longer fire seasons, drier conditions persisting later into the year, and an increased frequency of lightning as thunderstorms are becoming more frequent and severe. The group adds that forest fires are expected to burn over twice as much of today’s affected areas across 11 western states by later this century if conservative predictions about warming come true.

So what can be done? NWF stresses that every one of us can play a role by cutting back on our fossil fuel use (less driving and flying, less home heating and cooling, more efficient appliances, etc.). Another way to help is to take into account our own water use and making a concerted effort to cut back and conserve this most vital of all natural resources. NWF also wants land managers and policymakers to consider global warming when choosing water management strategies to meet multiple demands and to work to protect natural forest and wetland systems that absorb flood waters and provide efficient water storage.

CONTACTS: UCS; NWF.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: What is “biomass” and why is it controversial as a potential source of energy?
—Edward White, New Bedford, MA

Biomass can be a part of the effort to cut back on fossil fuels, but only if it is harvested and used in ways that reduce pollution, cut emissions and protect forests. Pictured: A biomass-burning power plant.

Photo © iStockPhoto

Biomass is plant matter that is burned as a source of energy. Fallen or cut wood that is burned for heat is one primary form of biomass, but another includes plant or animal matter that is converted into biofuels.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which was formed during the oil shocks of the early 1970s to help ward off future energy shortages, biomass combustion is a carbon-neutral process because the carbon dioxide released at burning has previously been absorbed by the plants from the atmosphere.

Biomass resources, reports IEA, include agricultural residues, animal manure, wood wastes, food and paper industry residues, municipal green wastes, sewage sludge, and a large variety of grasses and crops.

But while biomass may be in theory carbon-neutral, green groups point out that there is no free lunch. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), for example, points out that some American timber companies are targeting whole trees from forests as an easy source of biomass and are pressuring Congress to open up additional National Forest acreage for this form of energy generation.

NRDC says that, practically speaking, burning whole trees for biomass energy is far from carbon-neutral, given that the carbon dioxide that trees accumulate over decades is suddenly released into the atmosphere upon combustion, just like when coal is burned. “But unlike coal, however, trees will continue to absorb carbon if left alone.” Therefore, the burning of forests for biomass energy both emits considerable amounts of carbon and destroys an important way carbon is prevented from entering our atmosphere.

Deforestation isn’t the only problem with biomass. Burning biomass also produces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and other toxins harmful to our health. Two California wood-fired power plants were fined $830,000 under the Clean Air Act recently for violating emissions standards.

And then there is the issue of the efficiency of biomass as a fuel feedstock. Researchers have found that some common forms of biomass yield only 25 or 30 percent the amount of energy as an equivalent amount of coal. The 2011 closure of a biomass conversion plant in Georgia that reportedly spent $320 million to produce just 100,000 gallons of ethanol stands out as another black mark against biomass.

Despite such downsides, reports NRDC, some policymakers seeking to promote alternative fuels are proposing actions and policies that would greatly increase the use of biomass. At the same time, the group says, industry lobbyists are pushing to relax biomass sourcing safeguards and “pushing to give industrial biomass burning a ‘free pass’ on complying with Clean Air Act mandates.”

Biomass can be a part of the effort to cut back on fossil fuels, but only if it is harvested and used in ways that reduce pollution, cut emissions and protect forests. NRDC and other green groups would like to see Congress impose stricter rules to rein in soot, smog and greenhouse gases at biomass power plants and pass measures that safeguard forests from deforestation for biomass development.

CONTACTS: International Energy Agency; NRDC.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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