Water pollution may make #Rio2016 the most hazardous yet

Olympic visitors flocking to Rio de Janiero, Brazil for this year’s Olympic games have been warned: “Don’t put your head underwater.”

According to a study contracted by the Associated Press, the waters along the coast of Rio are filled with a toxic sludge of raw sewage, “teeming with dangerous viruses and bacteria.” In an amazingly horrible comparison, swimmers need to ingest only three teaspoons of water to be almost certain of contracting a virus, with levels of pollutants “1.7m times what would be considered alarming in the United States and Europe.”

But it’s not just a warning for the visitors — Olympians competing in the bay (sailors, rowers, and open-water swimmers) have had to take extra precautions in the form of antibiotics and anti-pollution microbial suits.

“[The water quality] is a real concern. We’re going to have to be very disciplined about how we’re taking care of ourselves,” said Meghan O’Leary, a member of the U.S. rowing team. “Don’t touch our face if we touch the water. Covering our water bottles with plastic bags. We get splashed a lot. I sit in bow. It’s going to happen. We’re just going to try to control everything we can.”

Unfortunately, the most polluted areas are the points where Olympic rowing and sailing races will take place.

The New York Times writes that a part of Rio’s Olympic bid was to “capture and treat 80 percent of the sewage that flows into Guanabara Bay,” which certainly isn’t happening by the time the Olympics start on Friday.

In the long term, Rio will be added to the list of Olympic host cities with issues — including the lack of snow in Sochi in 2014 and in the upcoming winter games in Beijing in 2022.


Earth Week 2016: Happy Earth Day!

Day five in the Earth Week 2016 series. Read parts one, two, three and four.

Today is Earth Day!

The signing of the Paris Agreement in December. Credit: United Nations Photo/flickr

This year, Earth Day has a special meaning. World leaders are meeting in New York City to sign the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement, which was ratified in Paris in December. 165 countries are planning to sign!

The agreement aims to lower carbon emissions in countries across the globe in order to limit our global warming to 2°C instead of 4°C, which is our current track of warming.

Limiting warming to 2°C may not seem like a lot, but it would decrease the amount of climate change impacts currently plaguing the world, including sea level rise, extreme weather and extreme heat.

There are still some climate change effects that won’t be completely eradicated, including ocean acidification. A lot of global heat is trapped in the oceans, and decreasing our emissions won’t decrease the current heat in the oceans. But, of course, it would help the overall rate of warming.

Because of the signing, world leaders are helping combat climate change by embracing renewable energy and carbon trading.

The main aim is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen capability to deal with the impacts of climate change.

To reach these ambitious and important goals, appropriate financial flows will be put in place, thus making stronger action by developing countries and the most vulnerable possible, in line with their own national objectives.

World leaders are helping out, but we can too! Drive less (or ride public transit or buy an electric car!). Eat less meat. If your energy company allows you the option to choose wind or solar on your energy bill, pay the extra few dollars. A little from everyone goes a long way.

Thanks for tuning in this Earth Week! View the whole Earth Week Series here.


Earth Week 2016: BP oil spill update

Day four in the Earth Week 2016 series. Read parts one, two, and three.

Since I’ve had this blog, I’ve written about tons of stuff — the Olympics and climate change, Montana coal, my outdoor explorations… the list goes on and on.

But some of my most popular posts are about crises that I just can’t ignore, so here’s an update on one of the most fascinating environmental crises of our time — the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, more commonly known as the BP oil spill, took place 6 years ago in April 2010. Here’s more background:

In April 2010, there was an oil spill of catastrophic proportions in the Gulf of Mexico due to negligence by BP executives and an explosion on an oil rig. This negligence caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history: 4.9 million barrels (205 million gallons) of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over months, and the blast from the explosion killed 11 workers and sent oil spewing into the Gulf for 87 days. In September 2014, BP was finally found liable for the oil spill in 2010 in court, and was charged with gross negligence. The oil giant could pay up to $4,300 per barrel spilled in fines on top of everything they have already paid (number is floating around $13.7 billion).

The BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico 2 months post well explosion. Credit: NASA

A lot has happened since then — clean-up efforts have been partially successful, new numbers have come out on size of the spill, BP has been fined billions, and restoration efforts continue on. Here’s what’s been going on recently.

A new study shows that the BP spill “trashed more shoreline” than we previously thought. As if the biggest oil spill in U.S. history could get worse, it actually has. National Geographic reports that new estimates have increased the amount of oil on shorelines 19 percent above previous estimates. This revised number “makes the disaster the largest marine oil spill in history by length of shoreline oiled.”

Meanwhile, a federal court has approved BP’s final settlement number — $20 billion, according to the Associated Press.

That HUGE number includes billions in penalties for violation of the Clean Water Act and other environmental damages, as well as billions that go to the Gulf states and their local governments. According to the AP, “BP has estimated its costs related to the spill, including its initial cleanup work and the various settlements and criminal and civil penalties, will exceed $53 billion.”

There has been some backlash against BP (who would have thought?) because the oil giant can legally classify $15 billion of the debt as a business expense, and the write-offs could total $5 billion.

A federal court has also finally approved a settlement for natural resources injuries to the Gulf — and it clocks in at $8.8 billion. That number includes the $1 billion already committed during early restoration, $700 million to “provide for adaptive management,” and $7.1 billion for a 15-year restoration project launching April 2017.

For more info on the settlement, see the NOAA website.

The White House has recently proposed new deep-sea, offshore drilling regulations.

Several rules target blowout preventers, or BOPs (devices that can seal off a well in case of emergency, and prevent an uncontrolled leak).

The Interior Department is mandating that BOPs be designed to avoid certain weaknesses, and be broken down and inspected every five years. (NPR)

This is huge, considering the blowout preventer is what faulted, causing the Macando well to explode in the first place. These rules and regulations would be imposed on all deep-sea offshore drilling equipment, as this type of drilling is expanding.

Offshore drilling is still allowed in the Gulf, despite protests in 2016, reports International Business Times, right after the Obama Administration blocked offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

View the whole Earth Week Series here.





Earth Week 2016: WXshift & Climate Central’s climate change indicators

Day three in the Earth Week 2016 series. Read day one and day two here.

So many things indicate that this planet is changing — from rapidly acidifying oceans to extreme weather — but it all can be boiled down to the greenhouse gas emissions we humans have emitted into the atmosphere.

Here’s how we know the climate is changing, thanks to my very own WXshift and Climate Central‘s indicators of a warming climate:

In the ocean:

Ocean acidification is getting worse. We’re currently in the midst of the largest coral bleaching event on record, which is killing corals across the globe.

Airport Reef in American Samoa at the height of a bleaching event in February 2016. Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Ocean acidification occurs when CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels reacts with salt water from the ocean and forms an acid.

Acidic oceans aren’t just bad for corals — at the bottom of the food chain, plankton have trouble adapting to warming and acidifying seas, which can cause an ecological collapse, which would severely alter the ocean’s food web and how we humans get our seafood.

Arctic sea ice is disappearing over time. A warming Arctic poses problems for polar bears hunting for food, as you may have heard, but it also has an important feedback role in global warming. Because sea ice is much more reflective than the dark ocean (because it’s white), it usually reflects sunlight away from the planet. When the ice melts, the sunlight is absorbed into the ocean, increasing warming. You can see Arctic ice melt in the video below.

Sea level rise is accelerating
As explained by WXshift:

Rising temperatures are causing global sea levels to rise through two primary mechanisms. Water expands as it warms and this thermal expansion causes water levels to rise. Hotter temperatures are also melting land ice, like glaciers and polar ice caps, which adds more water to the ocean.

The rate of sea level rise may increase even faster in the future with the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Global cities and icons (including those in the U.S.) will be inundated with coastal flooding when the seas rise. See more sea level rise maps here.

El Niño causes a swing in global temps (and extreme weather, among other things)

El Niño is a stretch of unusually warm water that forms off the coast of Peru and stretches across the equatorial Pacific every 3-7 years. The opposite phase, La Niña, displays a similar pattern but with cooler-than-normal water. These oceanic shifts conspire with the atmosphere to alter global weather by increasing the odds of drought, heavy rain and cool or hot temperatures in different parts of the world.

El Niño also contributes to record heat, as seen in this graph below.


On land:

U.S. wildfires are burning longer (and more frequently). The main cause of the increase in large wildfires in the Western U.S. is because of snowpack decline — because there is less snow, the area is more dry, and therefore more susceptible to going up in flames.


An increase in wildfires also decreases air quality, a serious health consequence.

Land ice is melting Arctic sea ice isn’t the only ice on the decline. Land ice, including glaciers and polar ice caps, is trending down across the globe, the melt of which contributes to sea level rise.


As with Arctic sea ice, land ice is reflective, so the more the better to reflect sunlight away from Earth.

Snow cover is decreasingWhen white snow disappears because the global temperature has risen, less sunlight is reflected off the planet, similar to what is happening with Arctic sea ice. In the Northern Hemisphere, snowpack has plummeted, which is not only a bummer for skiers, but for people who drink water (i.e. EVERYONE). Snowpack, especially in western states, provides runoff water that fills water tables and aquifers.


In the atmosphere:

Carbon dioxide is on the riseCarbon dioxide, the pollutant we emit into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels (and the primary greenhouse gas driving climate change), is on the rise. This chart says it all.


The global temperature is rising, tooThe rise in CO2 (see above) sets off many other climate indicators — in fact, it contributes to all of them, including the global temperature. Because of increased CO2 in the atmosphere, heat gets trapped, driving up global temperatures.


Extreme heat events are on the rise because of the rise in global temps. 

“The lasting legacy of climate change will be heat. The land, the oceans, all of it. It’s the tie that binds and while the global average temperature is the defining metric, the increasing incidence of heat waves and longer lasting extreme heat is how the world will experience it.” – Climate Central

Extreme heat events can cause death, and are likely to increase in the future, but it’s the humidity and heat combo that’s really killer.

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 1.36.25 AM
Check out this interactive (click-through) to see how hot and humid your city will get by 2054.

And there you have it! Ten indicators of a warming world. The takeaway from this is how everything is connected. A warming globe decreases snowpack, which increases the risk of wildfires. More CO2 in the atmosphere leads to more CO2 in the oceans, which melts sea ice and increases ocean acidity.

Everything in this world is connected, which is an important concept to learn when thinking about climate change impacts.

View the whole Earth Week Series here.