Climate Roundup: What's Burning Gilbert Grape?
Climate scientists have warned for decades that as carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels warms Earth's atmosphere, we should expect to see increasingly extreme weather events as a result. 2021 has already seen its share of extreme weather, like the recent "heat dome" in the western US. People are starting to say, Hey, this is not normal, is it? Abnormal is becoming the new normal, so perhaps it might be a good idea for the world to start moving a lot faster on the project of moving to green energy and building up our infrastructure's resilience to the extreme events that are coming. That's probably way more important than sending stupid dicks briefly into space, to say nothing of what their rockets look like. Let's take a brief look at some recent messages the planet has been sending to our inboxes, and mark them URGENT, shall we?
China: Severe Flooding In Henan Province
In Central China, Henan province has seen a year's worth of rainfall in just three days, with a peak of eight inches per hour on Tuesday. Streets and subways were flooded, and at least 25 people are dead in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital. Here's an overview from the BBC, showing people standing in neck-deep water as they wait for rescue from a subway train; at least 12 people on the train died, while others were rescued.
We'll just note that when we clicked on the video, YouTube, apparently feeling a bit ironic this morning, offered up an ad featuring billionaire Richard Branson pitching a contest that will send one lucky winner on a brief trip to the edge of space.
The extreme rainfall in Henan caused reservoirs in the region to overflow as well; some 1.2 million people have been displaced by the flooding so far, and the death toll is expected to rise. Al Jazeera reports that, 85 miles west of Zhengzhou,
authorities warned the deluge had created a 20-metre (66-foot) breach in the Yihetan dam in Luoyang – a city of approximately seven million people – with the risk that it "may collapse at any time".
Soldiers were sent to carry out an emergency response including blasting and flood diversion.
Elsewhere in China, in Inner Mongolia, in the northwest part of the country, two dams collapsed Sunday following days of heavy rain, according to state media reports cited by Reuters. Some 16,660 people had to be evacuated, 50,000 acres were flooded, and roads and bridges were destroyed, but there was no reported loss of life.
ALERT 🚨 Two dams in China’s Inner Mongolia collapse after heavy rain https://t.co/b1hGIBHVhu— Insider Paper (@Insider Paper)1626698004.0
To the dangers of extreme weather events, we should also add the additional danger resulting from old infrastructure around the world, as Reuters also notes:
China has more than 98,000 reservoirs used to regulate floods, generate power and facilitate shipping. More than 80% of them are four decades old or older, and some pose a safety risk, the government has acknowledged.
A lack of financial resources means that nearly a third of the total number have not had mandatory safety appraisals completed, Wei Shanzhong, deputy water resources minister, told a briefing this year.
Seems like there may be a good case for doing something about all that, everywhere, and soon.
Wildfires In The US, Smoke Everywhere
In southern Oregon, the Bootleg fire complex continues to burn; as a New York Times animated data visualization shows, smoke from fires in the Western US and midwest Canada has blanketed much of the country, even causing haze thick enough to block the sun in New York City.
Source: New York Times
The smoke has been so intense that areas from Toronto to Philadelphia have issued health alerts, the Times reports:
Air quality remained in the unhealthy range across much of the East Coast on Wednesday morning as the haze pushed southward.
In recent weeks, a series of near-relentless heat waves and deepening drought linked to climate change have helped to fuel exploding wildfires. In southern Oregon, the Bootleg Fire grew so large and hot that it created its own weather, triggering lightning and releasing enormous amounts of smoke. But more than 80 large fires are currently burning across 13 American states, and many more are active across Canada.
Microscopic particulates from the fires are at "unhealthy" concentrations along much of the smoke's path, including in New York; in parts of Minnesota, air pollution due to fires in Canada reached the EPA's highest level of concern, "hazardous."
Fine particulate matter, which is released during wildfires (and also through the burning of fossil fuels), is dangerous to human health. Breathing high concentrations of PM2.5 can increase the risk of asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes.
Wildfires are burning across several Western states, but winds are carrying its smoke as far as Canada and New York. https://t.co/yzd5g3wWtf— CBS News (@CBS News)1626811213.0
Germany, Belgium Cleaning Up From Floods Too
Nearly 200 people died in Germany and Belgium last week as flash floods inundated the western part of Germany; searchers are now saying there's little chance that any more of those swept away by the floods will be found alive. The New York Times reported Monday that many of those initially listed as missing have in fact been located, but it's still expected that the death toll will continue to rise as wreckage in affected areas is cleared away and searched.
The Wall Street Journal reports that while Germany's meteorological agency issued warnings of the risk for flooding, which were also carried on nationwide TV, the disaster response may have been hampered in some areas because Germany has a decentralized system that leaves natural disaster preparedness up to the 16 federal states, some of which responded more effectively than others:
Counties that had a siren warning system, originally devised for air raids, and those that sent out fire-department trucks equipped with loudspeakers to drive through the night and warn residents to flee to higher ground appear to have done better than those who followed other protocols or didn't have those resources.
Some people who received the warning rushed to their cellars as the flooding started in order to rescue valuable items only to be overwhelmed by the sudden torrent, officials involved in the rescue said. As waters subsided, rescuers began discovering lifeless bodies inside the cellars of buildings across the flooded region. People driving on the roads as the flood hit were quickly caught up in an overwhelming water mass that threw their cars around like toys.
Parts of Germany saw two months' worth of rain in a single day, caused by slow-moving low pressure systems that climate scientists predict will become as much as 14 times more frequent across Europe during the next century.
Nice Wine Industry Napa Valley Has. Shame If Climate Change Happened To It.
We'll close with a brief look at this New York Times deep dive into how the warming climate, and the drought and fires that come with it, is endangering California's wine region in Napa Valley. In short, it's bad. Following last September's fires, many wineries have had to deal not only with the loss of much of their crops, or wine storerooms being burned to the ground, but also with the loss of insurance coverage, as insurance companies decide the businesses are just too risky to write policies for. One winery saw the price of its insurance go from $200,000 a year before the fire, to over $1 million now — for half the coverage.
One winery has suffered four hits: It lost "millions of dollars in property and equipment, along with 9,000 cases of wine," then later, the owner discovered that even the crop of cabernet grapes that escaped the fire had been so damaged by smoke that it was worthless. This spring, there's no water to irrigate another vineyard. And on top of it all, the winery lost its insurance.
The article get to the point pretty quickly: Whether you care about wine or not, Napa is probably a bellwether for much of American agriculture:
If there is any nook of American agriculture with both the means and incentive to outwit climate change, it is here.
But so far, the experience of winemakers here demonstrates the limits of adapting to a warming planet.
If the heat and drought trends worsen, "we're probably out of business," said Cyril Chappellet, president of Chappellet Winery, which has been operating for more than half a century. "All of us are out business."
Not only are the wineries and vineyards at risk of burning down in wildfires, we learn, the smoke from fires far away can ruin the region's most profitable crop, grapes for red wine. The smoke penetrates the skins of of the grapes, leaving a nasty "smoke taint" that ruins the wine made from them. This is very bad for wineries and growers:
Smoke is a threat primarily to reds, whose skins provide the wine's color. (The skins of white grapes, by contrast, are discarded, and with them the smoke residue.) Reds must also stay on the vine longer, often into October, leaving them more exposed to fires that usually peak in early fall.
Vintners could switch from red grapes to white but that solution collides with the demands of the market. White grapes from Napa typically sell for around $2,750 per ton, on average. Reds, by contrast, fetch an average of about $5,000 per ton in the valley, and more for cabernet sauvignon. In Napa, there is a saying: cabernet is king.
Between 2019 and 2020, Sonoma County growers lost half the value of their crops, going from sales of $829 million in red grapes in 2019 to just $384 million last year.
At one vineyard this year, the high temperatures and heat have prompted growers to spray sunscreen on their grapes to prevent them from turning into "absurdly high-cost raisins." Growers are also looking at covering vines with shade cloth, which is expensive, or even "[replanting] rows of vines so they're parallel to the sun in the warmest part of the day, catching less of its heat," which is costlier still.
Update/clarification: I received a very nice email from Teresa Wall, the senior director of marketing communications for Napa Valley Vintners, to clear up a bit of a misconception in the New York Times story: No, growers are not spraying sunscreen made for use on human skin on their wine grapes. Rather, it's an "organic clay based" agricultural product what protects grapes from sun and heat. We wondered about that! We bet Ms. Wall has had a hell of a couple of days since the Times story came out, and are happy to correct the wrong impression. No Coppertone in your Merlot!
And then there's the water problem. Some growers are severely cutting back the amount of grapes they're growing, and one has found a temporary backup plan that may or may not last through the harvest: Trucking reclaimed household water from the local wastewater treatment plant, where it can be had cheap:
The water, which comes from household toilets and drains and is sifted, filtered and disinfected, is a bargain, at $6.76 a truckload. The problem is transportation: Each load costs [V. Sattui Winery president Tom] Davies about $140, which he guesses will add $60,000 or more to the cost of running the vineyard this season.
And that's assuming Napa officials keep selling wastewater, which in theory could be made potable. As the drought worsens, the city may decide its residents need it more. "We're nervous that at some point, Napa sanitation says no more water," Mr. Davies said.
Now, we know that in contrast to the death and losses from floods and fires and other catastrophes we've looked at today, the problems of people producing upscale wines may feel like No Big. But as a look at the challenges the world is going to face, it's still pretty sobering, and a cautionary tale to people who think we'll all just "adapt." If a specialized, very well-funded industry is having trouble getting a harvest in Napa Valley, imagine what the giant farms in the US grain belt are going to have to deal with as the growing seasons change and the water becomes harder to get — or so abundant that the fields are underwater.
Seems like we need to do some changing, kids. Would have been best if we'd started 30 years ago, but we can still prevent the very worst effects if we make those Big Structural Changes now.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.