25 Jul 2014:
Southwestern U.S. Aquifers
Are Extremely Low, NASA Data Show
Groundwater reserves in the U.S. Southwest are severely low and prospects for their long-term viability are bleak as persistent drought continues to parch the
land and prevent recharging, according to an assessment from NASA
. As shown in this map, many underground aquifers in the Southwest are extremely dry compared to average conditions over the past 60 years. Deep red areas on the map, such as in southern California and Nevada, depict aquifers that are so dry there's less than a 2 percent chance they could have experienced such levels of drought-related depletion since 1948. Although the Pacific Northwest is experiencing drought-related wildfires, its aquifers appear to be well-stocked, according to the map. The discrepancy is likely due to the long lag between dry conditions at the surface and depletion of groundwater reserves, researchers say.
15 Jul 2014:
California Agriculture Relying
Too Heavily on Groundwater in Drought
California's agriculture industry is relying too heavily on groundwater to irrigate drought-stricken farmlands — a trend that will not be sustainable long-term, according
Central Valley orchard
to a study
by the University of California, Davis. The drought, which is the third most severe on record, is responsible for the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture, with river water for Central Valley farms reduced by roughly one-third, the study found. Groundwater pumping will likely replace most river water losses, and some areas have more than doubled their pumping rate over the previous year. If the drought continues for two more years, the report says, groundwater reserves will continue to be depleted to replace surface water losses and pumping ability will slowly decrease, which could affect crop production. So far in the current drought, 428,000 acres of cropland — roughly 5 percent — has been made fallow across the Central Valley, Central Coast, and Southern California.
14 Jul 2014:
Human Activity Has Caused
Long-term Australian Drought, Model Shows
A new high-resolution climate model shows that southwestern Australia's long-term decline in fall and winter rainfall, which began around 1970 and has increased over the last four decades, is caused by
increases in man-made greenhouse gas emissions and ozone depletion, according to
research published in Nature Geoscience
. Simulating both natural and man-made climate effects, scientists showed that the decline in rainfall is primarily driven by human activity. Rises in greenhouse gas emissions and thinning of the ozone hole have led to changes in large-scale atmospheric circulation, including a poleward movement of the westerly winds and increasing atmospheric surface pressure over parts of southern Australia. This has led to decreased rainfall, the study said. The drying is most severe over southwest Australia, where the model forecasts a 40 percent decline in average rainfall by the late 21st century, with significant implications for regional water resources.
12 Jun 2014:
U.S. Breweries Cut Water
Use Amid Widespread Drought Conditions
Major breweries in the U.S. are cutting back on the amount of water they use to brew beer as drought threatens their water supplies, the Associated Press
reports. MillerCoors, headquartered in Chicago, has reduced its water use by 9.2 percent since 2012, a company sustainability report said. Earlier this month St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, the largest U.S. brewer, reported that it has cut water use by 32 percent in the last five years. Employing strategies such as fueling boilers with wastewater, recycling water used to clean bottles and cans, and installing sensors to fine-tune irrigation in hop and barley fields, MillerCoors has cut water use to 3.48 barrels of water for each barrel of beer, the company says. The company is also giving $700,000 to landowners in the watershed of its Fort Worth brewery who make efforts to curb erosion and runoff by, for example, planting native grasses or rotating cattle grazing lands. Craft breweries typically use twice as much water as major breweries per barrel of beer, the AP notes, because they are smaller in scale and don't have access to the same technology.
11 Jun 2014:
Group Will Pay Farmers
To Create Temporary Migratory Bird Habitat
started by The Nature Conservancy aims to enlist California farmers in creating temporary habitats for migrating birds — a partnership that could become
more important as the state's long-term drought continues and the birds' wetland habitats dwindle. Using crowdsourced data, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) tracks the paths of migratory birds on their annual journey from Canada to South America to determine where and when the birds will need suitable wetland habitat for stop-overs in California's Central Valley. Then, in a sort of reverse auction, TNC asks farmers how much they would charge to temporarily flood their land to accommodate the birds, and pays farmers with the lowest bids to do so for a few weeks or months. The Nature Conservancy says the year-old program has been a success, enabling the organization to rent habitat for roughly 0.5 to 1.5 percent of what permanent protection costs. The program's budget is $1 million to $3 million annually. Forty farmers flooded roughly 10,000 acres last year, and sightings of key migratory bird species were 30 times above average, according to TNC.
21 May 2014:
Trash-scooping Water Wheel
Cleans up Garbage From Baltimore Harbor
A new contraption
in a Baltimore river is helping to clear trash and debris — up to 50,000 pounds of it each day — from the city's Inner Harbor. The 50-foot-long
"water wheel" gathers garbage floating in the Jones Falls River, which runs through the city to the Baltimore Inner Harbor, and deposits it in a large dumpster so the trash can be hauled away. Two large booms funnel debris toward a conveyor belt powered by the wheel, which itself is powered primarily by the flowing river. When the flow isn't strong enough to turn the wheel, water pumps, run by solar panels lining a canopy over the wheel, turn on and push water up to spin the wheel. The water wheel was designed to handle the heavy debris and larger pieces of trash that the river often carries, said its designer, Baltimore-based Clearwater Mills. It began operating earlier this month and cost $750,000, with $500,000 of that contributed by the Maryland Port Administration, Co.Exist reports.
13 May 2014:
Half of U.S. is Experiencing
Some Degree of Drought, Analysis Finds
Half of the United States is in the midst of a drought, a recent analysis
from the U.S. National Drought Monitor found, with nearly 15 percent of the nation in extreme to
exceptional drought. Dry conditions are pushing north rapidly, along with warmer temperatures, and soil moisture and groundwater levels are low far in advance of the agricultural peak demand season, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Much of the Southwest and Great Plains regions have been in a persistent drought for several years, and as this map prepared by federal agencies shows, an exceptional drought is currently plaguing parts of those regions. The entire state of California is experiencing some level of drought, much of it extreme to exceptional. Snowpack is at half its typical level in many parts of the West and much of the snow has completely melted before it normally would, researchers say. The map is based on measurements of climate, soil, and water conditions from more than 350 federal, state, and local observers around the country.
02 May 2014:
Fracking May Induce Quakes at
Greater Distance than Previously Thought
Hydraulic fracturing and underground wastewater disposal may trigger earthquakes at tens of kilometers from the wells in which water is injected — a greater range than previously thought, according to new research from seismologists
. In one case, an earthquake
Fracking injection well in Louisiana
swarm in Oklahoma has been linked to a cluster of fracking injection wells up to 50 kilometers (31 miles) away, Cornell University researchers report. So-called "induced seismicity" — when human activity causes tremors in the earth's crust — is gaining attention as reports of earthquakes within the central and eastern U.S. have increased dramatically over the past few years. The rise coincides with increased hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas, and the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells in many locations, including Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), an average rate of 100 earthquakes per year above a magnitude 3.0 occurred in the three years from 2010-2012, compared with an average rate of 21 events per year observed from 1967-2000.
22 Apr 2014:
Run-of-River Hydropower Set
For Big Gains, Turbine Maker Predicts
A type of hydroelectric technology known as "run-of-river" hydropower is set to grow 10-fold over the next decade
, potentially becoming a $1.4 billion industry,
Hugh Keenleyside Dam
according to Dutch turbine maker Tocardo International BV. Run-of-river hydropower stations redirect part of a waterway through a diversion to spin turbines and generate electricity. Run-of-river is considered a more benign type of hydropower than large dam projects because it is a smaller-scale technology that doesn't create large upstream reservoirs that flood ecosystems and disrupt a river's natural flow. Some conservation groups are concerned
that problems with migratory fish passage and other environmental issues could outweigh the power-generating potential of run-of-river hydro projects. The company implemented its first project to harness tidal streams at Den Oever, Holland, and it has been operating for five years.
18 Apr 2014:
Scale and Extent of Dam Boom
In China Is Detailed in Mapping Project
China is planning to build at least 84 major dams in its southwest region, as shown in a map from the Wilson Center, eventually boosting its hydropower capacity by more than 160 gigawatts. By next year China's capacity
will surpass Europe's, and by 2020 it's projected to be larger than that of the U.S. and Europe combined. An interactive map
shows the scale and number of major dams proposed, under construction, existing, and canceled. The dam rush is part of an ongoing effort by China to increase non-fossil energy sources to 11.4 percent of the country's total energy consumption — a goal that has gained urgency due to severe air pollution in many northern Chinese cities. However, the hydropower push is not without its own major environmental consequences
, the Wilson Center notes. The cascades of planned dams will submerge important corridors connecting tropical rainforests to the Tibetan Plateau that allow wildlife to migrate as temperatures rise.
A Personal Note on Peter Matthiessen,
Who Wrote Eloquently of the Natural World
For an editor, the prospect of working with Peter Matthiessen was intimidating. He was one of our finest writers, and he wrote with such poetic precision and lyrical grace that at first it felt presumptuous to propose
any changes to his writing at all. That feeling was heightened by his strong physical presence — an odd mix of Manhattan patrician, rugged outdoorsman, and Zen priest (all of which he was). And yet when I worked as his editor on several magazine articles in the 1990s, it was an immensely satisfying experience. He listened Zen-like, carefully considering all my editing suggestions (with him, they were suggestions
only), and to my delight, accepted almost all of them. Matthiessen died on April 5 at the age of 86, near the Long Island waters he so loved to fish. Read more of e360 editor Roger Cohn’s appreciation of Matthiessen.
E360 Announces Contest
Yale Environment 360
For Best Environmental Videos
is holding a contest to honor the best environmental videos. Entries must be videos that focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and are a maximum of 15 minutes in length. The first-place winner will receive $2,000, and two runners-up will each receive $500. The winning entries will be posted on Yale Environment 360
. The deadline for entries is June 6, 2014. Read further contest information.
01 Apr 2014:
Delaware River Watershed
Is Focus Of Large-Scale Restoration Project
A Philadelphia foundation is providing $35 million to launch a host of programs aimed at better protecting the Delaware River
, which flows through the heart of
Delaware River at Trenton, New Jersey
the populous U.S. eastern seaboard and provides drinking water for 15 million people. The William Penn Foundation, working with nonprofit groups such as The Open Space Institute, says its Delaware River Initiative will protect more than 30,000 acres of land, launch 40 restoration projects, create incentives for businesses and landowners to protect the watershed, and set up a comprehensive program of water quality monitoring that will enable the foundation and its partners to measure the success of their programs and the overall health of the river. A cornerstone of the foundation’s initiative will be its restoration and protection work in eight so-called “sub-watersheds” that feed into the Delaware River.
26 Mar 2014:
New Satellite Tracks Global
Precipitation in Unprecedented Detail
Launched into space late last month, a new Earth-observing satellite from NASA and the Japan space agency has captured its first images
, which show an
extra-tropical cyclone off the coast of Japan at unprecedented resolution. The satellite, called the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, combines two powerful instruments that allow scientists to monitor precipitation around the globe in great detail, as the cyclone image demonstrates. One instrument, the Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar, captured a three-dimensional cross-section of the storm, with the heaviest precipitation shown in red and yellow. The second tool, a GPM Microwave Imager, observed different types of precipitation across a broad swath of the storm. Together, the instruments will help scientists more accurately predict rainfall and calculate how much precipitation falls to the Earth's surface.
10 Mar 2014:
Arsenic Remediation Project
Will Begin Decontaminating Water in India
New technology that removes arsenic from drinking water is set to be deployed on a large scale in India, according to
researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and an India-based water technology company. The device removes arsenic by passing electricity through steel plates submerged in a water reservoir. The electric current causes the plates to rust more quickly than they would under normal conditions, and the rust chemically binds to arsenic in the water and sinks to the bottom of the reservoir. The precipitated sludge can be removed from the tank, rendering the water safe to drink. Notoriously high levels of arsenic, a tasteless and odorless contaminant, naturally occur in groundwater sources in India, Bangladesh, and even California's Central Valley. Long-term exposure can cause cancer and severe damage to organs. A commercial plant is set to begin operations in West Bengal, India, this year and researchers estimate the drinking water can be sold for as little as eight cents per gallon.
Photo Essay: In New Orleans, an
Architect Makes Water His Ally
Dutch Dialogues II
No city in the United States faces as grave a threat from flooding, hurricanes, and rising seas as New Orleans, part of which lies below sea level. But New Orleans architect David Waggonner
and his associates, learning lessons from the Dutch
, have proposed a revolutionary vision for New Orleans that seeks to make an asset of the water that surrounds the city, remaking unsightly canals into an important and scenic part of the landscape and mimicking nature to store rainfall. Waggoner’s firm has been chosen to help develop a Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan
, a first step in what could be a multi-billion dollar project to redesign the ways in which the region co-exists with water. “To sustain the city in this difficult site in an era of rising seas and more extreme weather, we must convert our necessities into niceties, into desirable places that connect with people and culture,” Waggonner says. View the Photo Gallery
23 Jan 2014:
NASA Images Show Severity
Of California's Record-Setting Drought
A pair of NASA images, taken a year apart, show the profound impacts
of California's current drought, which Gov. Jerry Brown said yesterday poses a major threat to California's environment
and economy. A satellite image taken last Saturday shows virtually no snow cover
in the Coast Range and Cascade Mountains, and only a modest amount of snow in the Sierra Nevada. Officials say the snowpack is only 10 to 30 percent of normal levels. In addition, California's vital agricultural areas in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which lie west of the Sierra Nevada, are a parched brown. By contrast, a satellite image taken in January 2013 shows significant snowpack in the mountains and a swath of green in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. Half of California's yearly precipitation falls between December and February, so January's record dry conditions threaten water supplies for the entire year.
23 Dec 2013:
Russian Oil Giant Becomes
First in World to Pump Oil From Arctic
The Russian national oil company Gazprom has begun drilling for oil at a highly contested site in the Arctic
. The oil field, an offshore site in the Russian Arctic known as Prirazlomnoye, drew international attention in September when a contingent of Greenpeace members boarded the platform in protest and were jailed in Russia for two months before being granted amnesty last week. The project, which is several years behind schedule, is the first in Russian history aimed at "developing the resources of the Arctic shelf," Gazprom said. Environmental groups say that no company has the technology or resources to deal with a massive oil spill in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Ocean. The oil giant Shell had planned exploratory drilling in the Arctic off the coast of Alaska, but temporarily shelved those plans last year after a series of mishaps. Gazprom says it has taken all necessary precautions to deal with a spill, Mongabay reports.
07 Nov 2013:
Grand Canyon 'Zombie'
Uranium Mine on Hold for Financial Reasons
The reopening of a major uranium mine near the Grand Canyon has been put on hold until December 2014 or whenever a federal court rules on the proposed revival of the mine, the Guardian reports
. The owner of Canyon
Grand Canyon's South Rim
Mine, Energy Fuels Resources, cited falling uranium prices, which have reached a near five-year low, and litigation costs as reasons for the decision. In April the Canyon Mine and other so-called "zombie mines"
were given federal approval to reopen based on their rights at the time they closed, despite an Obama administration ban on new hard-rock mines in areas larger than 1 million acres. Grand Canyon National Park officials say reopening the Canyon Mine, located six miles from the popular South Rim entrance, and other uranium mines could affect scarce water sources in the area. Environmental groups and the Havasupai Indian tribe sued the U.S. government in 2012, contending the environmental review of the mine's impacts was outdated.
Photo Essay: Focusing a Lens on
China's Environmental Challenges
Photographer Sean Gallagher has lived and worked in China for seven years, visiting nearly all of its provinces as he documents the country’s daunting ecological problems and its widely varied landscapes. In a Yale Environment 360 photo essay
, the Beijing-based photojournalist chronicles China’s widespread water and air pollution, the battle against the desertification that has spread across the country's northern regions, and the threats to the nation's biodiversity.
View the photo gallery.
08 Oct 2013:
Eighty Percent of Ecosystems
Vulnerable to Climate Change, Study Finds
Climate change could significantly transform up to 86 percent of the planet's land ecosystems under worst-case global warming scenarios, according to researchers at Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
. That estimate is based on a 4 to 5 degree C temperature increase by the year 2100 — a scenario that is plausible given many nations' reluctance to enact greenhouse gas emissions limits, the researchers say. Even if global temperatures are kept to 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels, 20 percent of natural land ecosystems are at risk of moderate or major changes, especially high-altitude and high-latitude regions. Such changes could include boreal forests being transformed into temperate savannas, trees growing in thawed Arctic tundra, or even a dieback of some of the world's tropical forests. "Essentially, we would be leaving the world as we know it," says Sebastian Ostberg, who led the research. "The findings clearly demonstrate that there is a large difference in the risk of global ecosystem change under a scenario of no climate change mitigation compared to one of ambitious mitigation," he added.
02 Oct 2013:
Excess Radioactivity and Metals
Found in Pennsylvania Fracking Wastewater
Researchers found high levels of radioactivity, metals, and salts in sediments and water downstream from a Pennsylvania facility that treats fracking wastewater. Radioactivity levels downstream of the treatment plant were about 200 times higher than in surrounding areas, and concentrations of some salts and metals were also higher than background levels, the scientists reported in Environmental Science and Technology
. The Duke University team traced the radioactivity's source to the Marcellus Shale formation, which is naturally high in salts and radioactivity. Although the treatment plant removes more than 90 percent of the radioactive metals radium and barium, the effluent still exceeds federal limits for radioactive waste disposal, the researchers said. Plants, fish, and other organisms near the facility are potentially at risk for radium bioaccumulation. Downstream, carcinogenic byproducts can form when water with excess levels of the salt bromide mixes with disinfection chemicals at municipal drinking water plants, the study said. A mile downstream from the treatment facility, bromide levels were 40 times higher than background levels, the researchers reported.
24 Sep 2013:
Major Wind and Rain Belts
Could Shift North as Earth Warms
A study of warming at the end of the last Ice Age indicates that future warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels will likely shift the planet's rain and wind belts northward, say researchers
at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Regions that are already dry — including the western U.S., western China, and the Middle East — could grow drier, while equatorial Africa and monsoonal Asia may become wetter. An examination of data such as polar ice cores and ocean sediments shows that as the last Ice Age ended 15,000 years ago, northward shifts in the tropical rain belt and mid-latitude jet stream occurred as the temperature gradient between the northern and southern hemispheres increased. That sharper gradient came about because the land mass-dominated northern hemisphere warmed faster than the ocean-dominated southern hemisphere, according to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
. Researchers say a similar pattern could develop in years to come as the northern hemisphere continues to warm faster than the southern hemisphere.
17 Sep 2013:
Major Company Backs Out
Of Pebble Mine Project in Alaska
A major mining company has withdrawn its participation in Alaska's Pebble Mine project, dimming the controversial project's prospects of moving forward, the Anchorage Daily News reports
. The British Mining giant, Anglo American, said it was pulling out of the project to focus on lower-risk mining ventures — a tacit acknowledgment that opposition among fishermen,
Bristol Bay watershed
indigenous groups, and environmentalists was making it increasingly unlikely that the Pebble Mine would receive the necessary state and federal approvals. The opposition is focused on concerns that the massive gold and copper mine would threaten Bristol Bay and endanger the world's richest wild salmon fishery
. Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian company, continues to back the project, but a company official said the firm would have trouble moving forward without a partner.
11 Sep 2013:
Arsenic in Vietnam Groundwater
Slowly Moving Toward Hanoi, Study Says
As the population and water needs of Hanoi mushroom, the capital city of Vietnam is slowly drawing poisonous arsenic into the aquifer that supplies its drinking water, say researchers from the U.S. and Vietnam
. Water contaminated with arsenic has moved more than a mile
The Red River
closer to the aquifer over the last 40 to 60 years, the researchers report in Nature
, due to the city's increasing water demand; municipal pumping in Hanoi doubled between 2000 and 2010. The good news, says lead researcher Alexander van Geen of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is the contaminated groundwater "is not moving as fast as we had feared it might.” This will give Hanoi officials time, perhaps decades, to determine how to best deal with the problem. The study also determined why arsenic is leaching into the groundwater: As water containing arsenic mixes with high levels of organic carbon from the Red River and other surrounding aquifers, the chemistry changes and arsenic dissolves in the water.
05 Sep 2013:
Swapping Corn for Rice Benefits
China's Miyun Reservoir, Study Shows
After years of contamination and decreasing output, China's Miyun Reservoir is rebounding
, say researchers from China and the U.S. Rice farming had contaminated and tapped the reservoir, which lies 100 miles north of Beijing and is the main water source for the city's 20 million inhabitants. But four years ago, the Chinese government began paying farmers to grow corn instead, which requires less water and leads to less fertilizer and sediment runoff than rice farming
. Now, water quality tests show that fertilizer runoff declined sharply, the researchers found, and the amount of reservoir water available to Beijing and surrounding areas has increased. Farmers also made more money growing corn instead of rice and were able to spend less time tending their crops, the study concluded
How High Tech Is Helping
Bring Clean Water to Rural India
Social entrepreneur Anand Shah runs Sarvajal, a company that seeks to bring clean water to remote villages in India by deploying solar-powered “water
ATMs,” which dispense water to residents with the swipe of a prepaid smart card. Sarvajal, launched in 2008, currently serves more than 110,000 rural customers and is now is moving into India’s urban slums, where people often spend hours a day waiting for trucks to deliver clean water. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Shah talks about the challenges of expanding access to clean water in India and the lessons his company has learned from its first five years of operation. “The solutions came from what we actually saw in the field, rather than being invented elsewhere,” he says, “and that’s what makes it work.”
Read the interview.
23 Aug 2013:
Arsenic in Groundwater
May Affect 20 Million People in China
Nearly 20 million people in China are exposed to high levels of arsenic in the water they use for drinking and cooking, a new model based on geological and
hydrological data and well samples shows. The model predicts high arsenic concentrations
(10 micrograms per liter or greater) across more than 580,000 square kilometers, according to Chinese and Swiss researchers, who published their findings in Science
. Researchers had long known that some regions had high arsenic concentrations, but it would have taken several decades to test the millions of wells in China. The new prediction combined the most recent tests with data about the underlying geology, soil characteristics, and topography.
26 Jul 2013:
Parched New Mexico Reservoir
Reveals Effects of Prolonged Drought
A pair of satellite images released by NASA this week
shows the effects of a severe drought on New Mexico’s largest reservoir, where water levels are at their lowest
levels in four decades. Earlier this week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that Elephant Butte reservoir in southern New Mexico was holding about 65,057 acre-feet of water, only 3 percent of its capacity of 2.2 million acre-feet, largely as a result of prolonged drought conditions and unusually low spring snowmelt from nearby mountains. That represents the lowest water levels in the reservoir since 1972. From the mid-1980s to 2000 the reservoir was nearly filled to capacity, as illustrated in a 1994 satellite image, top, released by NASA. The reservoir, fed by the Rio Grande, provides water for about 90,000 acres of agricultural land and about half the city of El Paso, Tex.
15 Jul 2013:
Map Shows Possible Link
Between Warmer Springs and Large Fires
An interactive tool produced by the group Climate Central illustrates how rising temperatures and reduced snowpack in the western U.S. have corresponded with an increase in wildfires
in recent decades. Based on
federal wildfire data from 1970 to 2012, the graphic shows how large fires in some western states — including Arizona, Colorado, and Idaho — have doubled or even tripled in four decades, a period when the average spring and summer temperatures in 11 states increased by more than 1.5 degrees F. According to the Climate Central analysis, Arizona has experienced the highest average increase in spring temperatures, about 1 degree F, which has likely been a key factor in the steep increase in fires covering more than 1,000 acres. Another key factor has been the decrease in mountain snowpack. During several seasons, unusually low amounts of spring snow caused extended droughts that helped drive more big fires.