April 12, 2013 4:08 pm
For more than two years, a devastating drought has gripped a huge swath of the U.S.—drying up groundwater, killing crops and choking shipping lanes. One part of that drought, dubbed the “2012 Great Plains Drought” for its effect on middle America, says Climate Central, was worse than the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s. For many places, the drought is far from over.
With high temperatures and low rain taking a staggering economic toll—with billions of dollars in losses—a federal task force set out to figure out what caused the drought and to sort out if we should have seen it coming.
It seems that every time horrible weather hits, people turn and ask, “Is this climate change?” Typically, the answer you’ll get goes something like this: climate change is defined as a long-term statistical change in the weather, and so you can’t say that is any one disaster is “because of climate change.” That response is about as common as it is outdated.
In the past few years, a new concept has entered the discussion among climate scientists. Spear-headed in large part by the work of English scientist Peter Stott, the field of “event attribution” uses climate models to try to say how much we can attribute a natural disaster to global climate change. The famine-inducing drought that struck East Africa two years ago, a plight that lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, for instance, has been attributed to climate change: higher sea temperatures made the spring rains fail, driving the drought.
There’s never an all-or-nothing relationship between climate change and a particular extreme event. But what event attribution allows us to say is how much more likely a particular weather event was or how much stronger it ended up being because of shifts caused by climate change.
That being said, according to the Associated Press, the federal task force’s investigation says that the U.S. drought couldn’t be predicted by climate models and that the drought wasn’t due to climate change.
“This is one of those events that comes along once every couple hundreds of years,” said lead author Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Climate change was not a significant part, if any, of the event.”
“There was a change in the large-scale, slowly evolving climate that made drought severity more likely” in the past decade or so, Hoerling said” to Climate Central, “but nothing that pointed to a severe drought in 2012 specifically.”
The report may leave more open questions than answers, given that it found that no known source of natural climate variability can shoulder most of the blame for the drought, nor can man-made global warming, which over the long run is projected to make droughts more likely in some parts of the U.S., particularly the Southwest.
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April 11, 2013 12:51 pm
Back in 2006, a study showed that global warming could eliminate 80 percent of the United States’ current vines. Vinters started getting serious about planting and researching heat-resistent grapes, working on water-saving techniques and surveying future properties if it becomes necessary to pick up shop and move to higher, less sizzling locations. Which means, perhaps, that in the not too distant future, vinters may end up wreaking havoc on the natural habitats of currently endangered species.
According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, Mother Jones writes, around 70 percent of the area currently suitable or used for grape growing could be gone by 2050 (when atmospheric carbon dioxide will likely double). This problem isn’t specific to wine growers. As the Environmental Protection Agency points out, both in the United States and abroad, crops of all kinds face an uncertain future under changing temperatures, fluctuating and extreme weather and increasing carbon dioxide concentrations. While some crops may benefit from warmer temperatures (wheat and soybeans are potentials) and higher levels of CO2, others, like some grains, will likely whither under increasing temperatures and won’t have time to produce as many seeds.
Researchers can model how these fluctuations may shift suitable locations for growing certain crops, and in the new study, climate models predicted where the most suitable plots for wine growing may be located in Europe, North America, South Africa, Australia and China. Mother Jones reports that places will gain appeal include the Northwest U.S.—bear and moose territory—and mountainous parts of China—panda habitat. As wine growers move their operations to suit shifting climate, they may infringe upon endangered species. And while the choice between wine and pandas is a particularly difficult one to deal with, these are the sort of compromises that we’ll have to make as the planet changes in order to keep growing the food we need to survive.
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April 4, 2013 9:47 am
April 1st marks the beginning of Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month. But how does one honor this event? For starters, by watching out for, reporting and killing invasive pests like these:
1. The pest: The horrifying giant African snail
These slimy villains have wreaked havoc from Florida to Australia. They’re the size of a baseball, lay 1,200 eggs each year, can survive at almost any temperature, carry meningitis and eat 500 different kinds of crops and the sides of houses. Right now, Australia is panicking over having discovered just one of these giant snails. The USDA wrote in 2012, after squelching an invasion:
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve faced this damaging invasive pest. Back in 1966, a boy smuggled three giant African snails into South Florida upon returning from a trip to Hawaii. His grandmother eventually released the snails into her garden. Those initial three snails grew into one giant family—after completing a 10 year, $1 million eradication campaign, we had collected and destroyed more than 18,000 snails!
How to celebrate Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month with the giant African snail: Call an expert.
Aside from being a huge problem for crops and houses, the snails slime isn’t really safe to handle. And remember, they can carry meningitis. Let someone else handle your snail problem.
2. The pest: the Asian longhorned beetle
These beetles are quite beautiful, with shiny black bodies and little blue spots along their antennae and bodies. But don’t be fooled. The Asian longhorned beetle invasion has felled tens of thousands of trees in the Northeastern United States. The USDA writes:
The ALB has the potential to cause more damage than Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight and gypsy moths combined, destroying millions of acres of America’s treasured hardwoods, including national forests and backyard trees.
How to celebrate Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month with the Asian longhorned beetle: Report it.
Your region might be quarantined, like some are right now in New York and other states, but there’s no cure for the beetle infection, so the only thing to do is to stop its spread.
3. The pest: the grapevine moth
These moths threaten something quite important—wine. They feed on the flowers of plants and can leave behind fungal diseases that rot the fruits. Understandably, winemakers of the United States are not pleased, and Napa Valley has its own dedicated grapevine moth initiative.
How to celebrate Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month with the grapevine moth: Spray pesticides to kill it.
Farmers can apply the recommended doses of pesticides to keep the moth at bay. Here’s the Napa Valley program:
If applications are timed properly, conventional growers would only need to make one application for each of the two generations. For organic growers, a total of four to five applications for the two generations will be necessary due to shorter residual of the organic insecticides. Growers are advised to alternate between products to minimize risk of insecticide resistance. Timing for the first application should be just prior to the beginning of bloom.
The list of invasive species goes on and on and—from your orange juice, to your maple syrup to your landscape, do apples and pears, to baseball bats—affects most parts of your day.
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March 25, 2013 3:16 pm
Earlier this month, locals spotted what would prove to be the first of a plague of dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River in Shanghai, which supplies drinking water to the metropolis. The pig death toll has steadily risin since then—16,000 confirmed at last counting.
But just as officials said they were finishing up with recovering the last of the carcasses, dead ducks joined the swine in polluting China’s rivers. Locals in Sichuan Province spotted around 1,000 of the birds floating down the Nanhe River, the BBC reports.
As for the dead pigs, officials still have not produced an explanation for the animals’ presence. The Huffington Post writes:
Hog farmers have told state media that the dumping of swine carcasses is rising because police have started cracking down on the illicit sale of pork products made from dead, diseased pigs.
Local officials also told Southern Weekly that the city lacks enough facilities to properly dispose of dead pigs.
Though many hog farms are situated upstream of Shanghai, the authorities still haven’t nailed down any culprits. The New York Times explains that authorities do have their eye on the upstream farmers, though:
Those suspicions seemed to be confirmed when Shanghai officials said that more than a dozen of the pigs carried ear tags indicating that they were from Jiaxing. The authorities then announced that they had detained a farmer who confessed to throwing his animals into the river.
But in Jiaxing, farmers denied dumping pigs into the river, calling it preposterous and saying that the animals could not possibly have floated all the way to Shanghai.
It’s also possible, the Times writes, that the animals died on their way to Shanghai and that truck drivers decided to dump the bodies in the river. The paper argues, though, that this may actually be a bit of positive environmental news from China:
In May, for example, the police in this hog-producing city arrested four people who had sold dead pigs to slaughterhouses. And in December, a Zhejiang Province court sentenced 17 people to prison sentences, one for life, for processing and selling meat from pigs that had died of various diseases. In less than two years, the group had collected about 77,000 animals.
So, as the authorities have cracked down on people selling diseased or dead pigs, agriculture experts say, it is possible that someone may have decided it was better to dump dead pigs into the river.
Officials insist to locals that the water is still safe to drink and that the city’s pork is fine to eat.
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March 22, 2013 2:54 pm
They’re healthy; they’re plentiful; they’re kosher. Just in time for Passover, some Israelis are taking advantage of a swarm of locusts flying in from Egypt to whip up a unique holiday snack. The versatile insects, which are a couple inches long, are apparently equally tasty breaded and fried or covered in molten chocolate.
Israel has been dealing with the swarm for the past couple weeks, the BBC reports. Locusts can eat their body weight in a farmer’s crops per day, so innovative humans have decided to turn the tide on the hungry pests by eating them.
Eucalyptus, a fancy restaurant in Jerusalem, for example, has a particular interest in ancient Biblical food, according to the BBC. The chef there, Moshe Basson, recommends cooks “drop them into a boiling broth, clean them off, and roll in a mixture of flour, coriander seeds, garlic and chilli powder. Then deep-fry them.” He adds that they can also be mixed with caramel and pan-fried as a crunchy, sweet snack. The BBC continues:
Locusts are usually hard to source in Israel and Basson has to get them from a specialist lab. But nothing, he says, beats freshly gathered, locally sourced, wild ones.
Locusts that have feasted on sesame plants acquire an oily, shiny tinge, and are said to be particularly delicious.
Locust is the only kosher insect, and the Torah states that red, yellow, spotted grey and white locusts are fine for eating. Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky told the BBC, however, that he regularly fields calls from concerned Jews about whether or not everyone can eat locusts, or only those Yemenite and North African Jews who had a tradition of eating them. For Jews in Europe, the tradition likely died out since locusts rarely make their way that far north. But that doesn’t mean Ashkenazi Jews can’t enjoy locusts, he says.
While there are simply too many locusts to eat the swarm out of existence, Israelis who do tuck in will enjoy a healthy—and reportedly delicious—source of zinc, iron and protein.
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