TIME

Is This America’s Smartest City?

A community in Austin tracks every watt of energy it uses—so the rest of us can live more efficiently

Dan McAtee and Laura Spoor’s utility bill last year came to $631. That’s not bad considering the average annual electric bill in Austin, the Texas capital, is more than $1,000, largely because air-conditioning may be the only thing locals love more than barbecue. But it’s even more impressive once you realize the bill actually came to negative $631. The solar panels on their roof mean McAtee and Spoor produce more electricity than they consume. “We got the biggest system we could get,” says McAtee, pointing to the array of panels laid atop their one-story home like domino tiles. “Now we’ve got what you might call overgeneration.”

But while the solar panels stand out–such arrays are rare in Texas–what really sets McAtee and Spoor’s home apart can’t be seen at all. Smart circuits are tracking their electricity use on a minute-by-minute and appliance-by-appliance basis, providing a running record of how power flows through their home. On his computer, McAtee opens a website that shows in near real time the rise and fall of their electricity use over the months. When Spoor opens the refrigerator to get a pitcher of lemonade, the readings spike for a moment, reflecting the extra watts consumed as the appliance compensates for the rush of warmer air. “You can literally see when a lightbulb is turned on,” says McAtee, 73, who spent years as an engineer at IBM before his retirement.

These insights come courtesy of Pecan Street Inc., a research group running the most extensive energy-tracking study in U.S. history (backed in part by the Department of Energy). Its ground zero is Mueller, a planned green community in Austin where hundreds of households have signed up to have their electricity use monitored on a granular level. Researchers track when and why Mueller’s residents consume power and how fast-growing new technologies–like solar panels, connected appliances and electric cars–are affecting the grid. (Thanks in part to an incentive program, Mueller has more electric vehicles per capita than any other U.S. neighborhood.)

That kind of data is unprecedented in the electricity industry, whose essentials have remained largely unchanged since 1882, when Thomas Edison opened America’s first commercial power plant. The Pecan Street team is already using it to upend long-held theories about electricity use and test provocative new distribution methods, which could make our power cleaner and cheaper. With U.S. demand for electricity projected to rise at least 30% over the next 30 years, the methods it pioneers may be our best shot at avoiding a future full of brownouts, blackouts and sky-high energy bills. “Mueller is the community of the near future,” says Suzanne Russo, chief operating officer at Pecan Street. “But everything we’re learning is going to be applicable to every community in America.”

To get why Pecan Street and Mueller are so special, it’s important to understand how data-poor the electricity business has been for most of its existence. Until just a few years ago, power utilities had two basic functions: to make sure they could meet the highest level of demand at any given moment–in Texas, that’s usually an afternoon in the late summer, when people start blasting their AC as soon as they arrive home from work–and to estimate how much electricity people use every month, a.k.a. the kilowatt-hours that show up on a utility bill. Beyond that, they had little incentive to maximize efficiency. They made money according to how much power they sold, not how much they saved. That made for a grid that was inherently less stable; during blackouts, utilities often didn’t know which consumers had lost power until they called to complain.

That began to change about five years ago as progressive utilities–aided by billions of dollars in stimulus funding from the new Obama Administration–started to install smart meters, two-way devices that can track electricity use at least once an hour. Today there are more than 40 million in use, part of a larger national effort to make the U.S. electrical grid better able to prevent events like the Northeast blackout of 2003, in which more than 50 million people temporarily lost power.

The Pecan Street devices are even smarter than smart meters, recording data from different appliances essentially in real time. At any given moment, the Pecan Street engineers–who work in partnership with the University of Texas and local utility Austin Energy–know exactly how much electricity their subjects are using and how that use changes in response to the time of day, weather patterns, even fluctuations in power price. (They don’t know who is using the power, though; all household data is anonymous.) “It’s by far the most aggressive [data-collection] project that I know of,” said Ernest Moniz, U.S. Energy Secretary, during a visit to Pecan Street in February.

Already, the numbers have challenged some conventional wisdom about solar power, which is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. For years, experts assumed that panels should face south in order to catch the most total sunlight and produce the most power. But Pecan Street found that it’s better for the grid if they face west. That way, they’re catching the most sunlight and generating the most electricity at the very moment in late afternoon when power usage is highest and utilities often bring polluting, expensive “peaker” plants online to prevent brownouts. Since those costs get passed on to consumers, more solar panels–used more effectively–should mean lower bills for everyone.

Pecan Street has dismissed longstanding objections to electric cars as well. As more drivers buy them, utilities have expressed concern that they will all start charging at the same time (after work, in tandem with AC use), creating a massive strain on the grid. But that hasn’t been the case in Mueller, where most people have opted for overnight, off-peak charging–especially if their utility makes it cheaper to do so. Pecan Street engineers are even testing a system that would enable electric cars to store excess solar power during the day and use it at night to power your home for free. “It really shows the value of having a smart home,” says Jim Robertson, another participant in the Mueller project.

Of course, the rest of America may never realize Mueller’s vision for the future. Solar power won’t work as well in cold, cloudy states like Alaska, for example. And not every consumer will be as open to micro-monitoring or surge pricing as the ones who live in Mueller, even if it will ultimately save them money. “Pecan Street is an innovative project,” says Jerry Jackson, director of the Smart Grid Research Consortium. “But right now I don’t think there’s a broad scope of consumers who are that interested in this technology.”

Yet in a world that’s becoming ever more dependent on a clean, steady supply of electricity–consider life without your iPhone or laptop–everyone has a stake in building a more efficient grid. And the status quo won’t change unless there are metrics to prove that it should.

In that vein, Pecan Street is expanding its study to other cities, including San Diego and Boulder, Colo. In May, the White House introduced an initiative to make energy data much more widely available–two months after Pecan Street made its own database freely available online. “It’s our chance to build the utility of the future,” says Kara Mertz, who is managing the Boulder Pecan Street project.

All of which means we may soon be living in a world where everyone likes their energy bills as much as Mueller’s McAtee. “Saving the environment is good,” he says. “But financially viable–that’s good too.”

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Don’t Blame Fat: Sources for Further Reading on the Healthy-Diet Debate

More to read about the changing American diet

The debate over saturated fat—and fat in general—is of interest to anyone looking to eat a healthier diet, as the tremendous response to TIME’s recent cover story has underscored. For readers interested in diving more deeply into the topic, here are some sources for more information.

—Gary Taubes’s 2008 book Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, as well as his 2002 New York Times Magazine cover story “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie” and his new project, the Nutrition Science Initiative

—Dr. Robert Lustig’s 2012 book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Diabetes and the Gary Taubes feature about sugar, “Is Sugar Toxic,” from 2011

—Jonny Bowden and Dr. Stephen Sinatra’s 2012 book The Great Cholesterol Myth: Why Lowering Your Cholesterol Won’t Prevent Heart Disease—and the Statin-Free Plan That Will

—Dr. William Davis’s 2011 book Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health

—Journalist Nina Teicholz’s 2014 book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet

—The 2014 documentary Fed Up, from executive producers Laurie David and Katie Couric, which we wrote about here

—Michael Moss’s 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

—Former FDA commissioner Dr. David A. Kessler’s book The End of Overating, from 2010

TIME magazine’s 1961 cover on Ancel Keys, the architect of the anti-fat fight movement; our famous 1984 cover on the danger of cholesterol; a 2002 cover on what makes us fat; a 2006 cover about fat-free fat, and a 2006 cover exonerating eggs

 

TIME Environment

Crimson on White: Hunting the Polar Bear

The images of a polar-bear hunt will be hard to view, but life in Canada's impoverished Inuit communities is just as hard

Ed Ou spent four months in 2013 photographing Inuit communities in Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada. Here, many are cut off from the rest of the country — and food and supplies are brought in at an extremely high cost by land and sea. Because of this, the Inuit often depend on hunting for food. Environmental groups regularly criticize them for hunting species claimed to have dwindling populations such as narwhal, belugas, seals and polar bears. In the U.S., Washington has pushed for a global ban on the commercial trade of polar-bear fur, meat and body parts. But the Canadian government opposes this on behalf of the Inuit.

Editor’s note: Given the isolation of the communities in the north of Canada, Ou helped offset the high costs of embedding himself with the Inuit community and contributed money for gas, groceries, heating, Internet and other expenses.


Ed Ou’s pictures are hard to look at. A polar bear emerges from the water, drenched in blood, turning its white fur crimson. Then the dead bear sprawled on the rocks, legs spread and jaw open, as if it were simply caught by surprise, even while the hunters begin the process of butchering the carcass. Finally the bear’s pelt, cleansed of blood, drying in a bathtub.

Polar bears have become the living symbols of climate change, with reason — as the planet warms, the sea ice that the bears use as hunting platforms is melting, putting the animals at risk. The idea of hunting and killing an animal that is listed as an endangered species, one that’s already under pressure from climate change, seems wrong on its face, like crimson blood on white fur.

But look closer at those pictures. Ou, a Canadian, traveled to the Inuit homeland of Nunavut in the far north not to document a polar-bear hunt, but to explore a part of his own country that had always seemed foreign. In remote towns like Pangnirtung and Iqaluit, Ou found a culture grappling with extreme poverty, substance abuse and a legacy of mistreatment from the Canadian government, which for decades all but stole Inuit children from their parents, sending them to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own culture. The last residential schools were only shut down in 1996, but the effects are still being felt among the Canadian Inuit whom Ou went to document, compounded by the extreme isolation of the Arctic and the painful transition from a traditional subsistence-hunting culture to a sedentary way of life. “Trauma has been passed down from one generation to the next,” says Ou. “Alcoholism is high, drug abuse is high, suicide rates are high. It’s a very traumatized place.”

In his photos, Ou shows Inuit like Kelly Amaujaq Fraser, a young woman who was sexually abused as a young girl, and whose father killed himself when she was just a teenager. Ou shows a near-empty refrigerator, the product of a place where unemployment is in the double digits, and where a simple carton of milk can cost more than $10. Given those bleak conditions, it’s not surprising that the Inuit would hunt polar bears, as their ancestors did before them — albeit not with high-powered rifles. A single polar-bear pelt can fetch more than $10,000 on the open market, and the meat can feed dozens of hungry people. As distasteful as the sight of a butchered polar bear might be to outsiders, to the Inuit, it’s a matter of survival — and of culture. “They feel their ability to hunt is one of their last sources of subsistence,” says Ou. “Before you judge them, you have to understand the socioeconomic factors driving this.”

That doesn’t mean it’s right to allow polar-bear hunts to continue. It’s unclear just how many polar bears are left, and the continued effects of climate change will almost certainly drive the species closer to extinction if nothing is done to save them. But it doesn’t seem that the burden should fall on the Inuit, who’ve already paid such a high price. “They ask, ‘Why do we have to pay the highest price for global warming when we contribute the least?’” says Ou. Justice is something else that’s endangered in the Arctic.


Ed Ou is a photographer with Reportage by Getty Images

TIME Iraq

Violence in Iraq Could Raise the Price at the Pumps

The global oil market is already responding to violence in Iraq, one of the world's biggest producers, as Sunni insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria overrun northern towns with eyes on Baghdad, but it could get much worse

It’s not surprising that oil prices are at a three-month high, given the alarming unrest in Iraq. Oil traders do not react well to geopolitical instability, and that goes double when there’s an impending civil war in one of the world’s biggest producers of crude.

The Sunni insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, which hosts a 300,000-barrel per day refinery, while Kurdish forces are now in control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk after Iraqi troops abandoned their post. Repairs to the 250,000 barrel a day pipeline that runs from Kirkuk to the Turkish city of Ceyhan, offline since March due to sabotage, have been interrupted because of the fighting.

The good news, of sorts, is that Iraq’s biggest oil fields are in the far south, well away from the fighting in the north, as Robert McNally of the Rapidian Group told the Washington Post:

While not beyond [ISIS'] geographical reach, an effort to expand operations into southern Iraq would risk overextension and expose the militants to the more determined defenders of southern oil infrastructure as well as Shia militia.

It’s possible that the Iraqi government in Baghdad—potentially with American help—will beat back ISIS and retake the north. And crude will keep pumping in the south even if the war drags on. The international oil companies that have come to do business with Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion are used to working in unstable places. If a civil conflict could stop the global oil industry, we’d have reached peak oil a long time ago.

But even if Iraq doesn’t collapse, the unrest will take a long-term toll on the country’s ability to produce oil—and that toll will be felt by consumers in the future. Iraq has the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves, which means the country has a lot more crude left to pump. And because Iraq’s oil industry was artificially depressed by years of mismanagement under Saddam, international sanctions in the 1990s and the chaos of war and reconstruction, the country has a lot of room left to improve. In February, Iraq’s production hit an average of 3.6 million barrels a day—the highest level since Saddam seized power in 1979. And a 2012 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that Iraq could reach 8.3 million barrels a day of production by 2035. That would make Iraq by far the largest contributor to new oil growth, which in turn could help accommodate the still growing demand from developing nations like China.

But that sort of expansion would require tremendous amounts of investment and a steady hand from the central government. Prolonged civil war would imperil both. And if that leads to consistently higher oil prices, the global economy could be at risk too.

TIME Environment

Carbon Regs Will Help Your Health More Than the Planet’s

EPA coal pollution
Carbon dioxide is the chief target of EPA regulations, but they'll also help curb conventional pollutants Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Public health—through cleaner air—will benefit more from EPA carbon rules than climate change, and that's O.K.

When the White House rolled out the proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on power-plant carbon emissions on June 2—regs that will reduce emissions 30% below 2005 levels—President Barack Obama attended a conference call with a number of public health groups, including the American Lung Association. Obama talked about the importance of treating carbon as a pollutant, of investments in energy efficiency that would cause electricity bills to shrink, of the momentum behind the move to a low-carbon economy.

But he spent much of his time talking about the health benefits that would come as the regulations cracked down on coal plant pollution:

“I got a letter from Dian Coleman, who is a mother of four. Her three kids have asthma. [...] She keeps her home free of dust that can trigger asthma attacks. Cigarettes aren’t allowed across the threshold of her home. But despite all that, she can’t control the pollution that contributes potentially to her kids’ illnesses, as well as threatening the planet. We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing something on behalf of Dian, and doing it in a way that allows us also to grow the economy and get at the forefront of our clean energy future.”

Carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant—at least, not in the sense that breathing it in damages health. (If it were, trees would be a lot more dangerous.) CO2 does cause climate change, which in turn can directly threat health by increasing ozone levels, intensifying heat waves and floods and even worsening allergies, all of which the White House detailed in a new report out today. But Obama and his officials have been talking up a different sort of public health benefit that will come with the regulations: the reduction of dangerous, conventional pollutants like nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and simple soot. “Our role in this initiative is to protect public health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told me in an interview last week. “It’s key in this rule that when we lower carbon, we reduce traditional pollutants.”

The EPA says that the regulations will reduce those conventional pollutants by more than 25% over the lifetime of the rules as a co-benefit. That in turn will avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children and nearly 500,000 missed work or school days. That might just be the beginning—the more we learn about air pollution, the more dangerous it seems even at lower levels. A new study from the University of Rochester found that exposure to air pollution at a young age caused changes in the brains of mice, including an enlargement in the parts of the brain that is seen in humans with autism and schizophrenia. And air pollution is still a major problem in the U.S.—a recent report from the American Lung Association found that nearly 5 in 10 Americans live in places where the air can be dangerous to breathe.

There’s an added political value to the White House’s focus on the public health benefits of carbon regulations. Note the huge partisan gap on the issue in recent polls: climate change, unfortunately, remains an area where there is deep political division. But air quality and public health is something that Americans can get together on, at least somewhat, without the conversation turning into a debate over temperature trends and IPCC assessments. That could help these regulations, which are supported by a strong majority of Americans, overcome kneejerk Republican opposition. “You don’t need to have a debate over climate change,” says Jim Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana and a member of the White House task force on climate change. “Who doesn’t want to breathe clean air?”

As I wrote last week, the EPA regulations by themselves will have only a small impact on total U.S. carbon emissions, and a negligible one globally. The hope is that these rules are just the beginning, that they will help prompt other countries to push their own carbon-cutting efforts further, and encourage businesses to find even better ways to accelerate the clean energy revolution. But countless Americans will breathe easier—literally—thanks in part to these rules. That’s reason enough to celebrate.

TIME Environment

New Obama Climate Regulations Could Help U.S. Pressure China

New regulations will only have lasting benefit if they help encourage countries like China to take similar steps

As my colleague Michael Grunwald points out, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed new rules on carbon emissions from the power sector are a big deal. (Vice President Joe Biden might use slightly different language.) The rules—which still have to go through a year of public comment and which will almost certainly face legal and Congressional challenges—would cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. These regulations—which will apply to existing power plants, not just new ones—are by far the biggest single step taken by the U.S. to fight climate change. With the stroke of a pen (though it was technically be EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s pen), President Barack Obama has done more about global warming than all of his predecessors combined.

But climate action is measured in carbon, not in political legacies. By that measurement, the U.S. carbon regulations are only a beginning, and will only have lasting benefit for the world if they help encourage the major future emitters—the big developing nations like China and India—to take similar steps to reduce their own rapidly growing carbon emissions.

The truth is that the EPA regulations are so historic largely because so little has been done to restrict carbon emissions before. As Eric Holthaus points out over at Slate, choosing 2005 as the baseline year for carbon cuts makes it that much easier for the U.S. to meet a 30% cut. (In a call with reporters, senior EPA officials made the case that 2005 is less a baseline than a point of comparison for the changes that will be made in emissions by 2030. The actual policy, which will be left to individual states, flows from the energy mix in the U.S. as of 2012. But 30% less than 2005 levels sounds a lot more impressive than a smaller percentage from 2012 levels, even though they ultimately mean the same thing.) That’s because U.S. carbon emissions have already fallen significantly since 2005, thanks to a mix of increasing natural gas (which emits around half as much carbon as coal), a growing contribution from renewables and the recession, which reduced consumption of everything, including energy. As of 2011 carbon emissions from the power plant sector alone—which accounts for a little less than 40% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—had fallen 16% since 2005, which means we’re already more than halfway there. Using 1990 as a benchmark year for emissions—which is what’s done in the UN climate process—the EPA regulations only amount to a 3.5% cut by 2020.

In fact, given that U.S. power plant emissions had been dropping, the reductions mandated in the regulations are likely much smaller than they seem. The EPA itself estimates that emissions from U.S. power plants will be 730 million metric tons less by 2030 than they would have been without the rules. That’s not a negligible amount—it’s equivalent to taking two-thirds of the country’s passenger vehicles off the road for a year—but it still amounts to just about 11% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2011. The EPA predicts that by 2030, coal and natural gas will still be the leading sources of U.S. electricity, each contributing 30% of power, with non-hydro renewables coming in at 9%, up from about 6.7% now. It’s impossible that anything tougher would have been politically feasible—witness Republican House Speak John Boehner’s two-word reaction to the news rules: “It’s nuts.” Still, if everything the EPA predicts comes true—obviously not likely—the U.S. of 2030 will be a cleaner, healthier place, but it will still be pouring a lot of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

And even that may not matter all that much to the global climate. That’s because the U.S. has already been outpaced as the world’s top emitter by China, where carbon emissions have increased an astounding 52% since 2005. Rising India isn’t too far behind—carbon emissions have grown 50% since 2005. These giants, and other rapidly growing countries in the developing world, will be putting the vast majority of the new carbon into the atmosphere in the decades to come. The amount of carbon set to be saved by the EPA rules amounts to a little over 2% of total global carbon emissions in one year: 2012. It’s still China and the other big developing nations that control the future of the climate.

But that doesn’t mean U.S. action can’t make a difference—as much by example as by actual numbers. The EPA regulations should allow the U.S. to reach the 17% reduction below 2005 that Obama promised during the doomed U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. U.N. climate talks, which resume at the end of the year in Lima, have always been hobbled by the refusal of the U.S. to take the lead on cutting carbon, going back to the fact that Washington failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Representatives from Beijing and New Delhi could—and did—argue that it was unfair to expect still poor countries to cut carbon if the world’s top historical emitter refused to take action. But U.S. diplomats will now be able to point to EPA regulations as proof that the U.S. has pledged itself to long-term carbon cuts—and cuts that come under national law, not more amorphous international promises. “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example,” Obama told graduating West Point cadets in an address last week. “We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.”

That doesn’t mean the dream of a global climate deal has been saved. The reality is that the future of climate action will look like this—national or regional entities taking steps on their own, for their own reasons, that will hopefully add up to something real. China is already taking aggressive steps on carbon, less to deal with climate change than to counter the truly horrific air pollution the country faces. Beijing will continue on that path to save itself, but U.S. leadership can’t hurt. “I fully expect action by the United States to spur others in taking concrete action,” said Christiana Figueres, the U.N.’s top climate official.

We’ll see. But here’s my prediction: The policies put in place in Washington or Beijing or New Delhi will ultimately matter far less than the technological changes that are already sweeping the energy industry. U.S. carbon emissions have fallen over the past decade—in the absence of national action—largely because of new technologies, including the fracking revolution, which made it economical for cleaner natural gas to displace dirty coal. In the years to come, solar panels will keep getting cheaper and cheaper, which could potentially upend the utility model, much in the same way that mobile phones disrupted landline companies. Big data will change how we use and produce electricity, reducing waste. Obama’s climate regulations will help cement those changes and encourage new ones as states mix and match to meet their emissions reductions goals.

But 2030 will look very different from 2014—and will almost certainly be much cleaner in the U.S.—for reasons that go far beyond a 626-page regulatory order coming out of Washington.

TIME weather

El Niño Could Mean a Disaster-Free Hurricane Season

The Atlantic hurricane season officially kicks off on Sunday, which means for the next six months the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S. will be on the lookout for the next big Andrew, Hugo or Katrina. As it happens, the U.S. is in the middle of a record-breaking hurricane drought. It’s been 3,142 days since the last major hurricane — defined as Category 3 or above — made landfall in the U.S. (That was Hurricane Wilma, which hit southwest Florida in October 2005 and was the most intense cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, with sustained winds of 185 m.p.h.) That’s an unprecedented streak, going back to 1900 — the longest drought before the current one was nearly 1,000 days shorter.

Don’t expect that drought to end anytime soon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has forecast that the Atlantic’s hurricane season will be in the normal to below-normal range, with nine named storms (the long-term average is 12) and three hurricanes (the average is six or seven). Only one of those hurricanes is expected to reach Category 3 or higher, with sustained winds of at least 111 m.p.h. (179 km/h). NOAA says there’s a 1-in-5 chance that a major hurricane could actually make landfall along the East Coast — and not a Katrina in the bunch.

One of the reasons why the Atlantic hurricane season is forecast to be so mild is because of something happening in the Pacific, thousands of miles away. Scientists are predicting that we have a better than even chance of developing an El Niño event within the next six months. El Niños occur when the waters of the equatorial Pacific undergo unusual warming, which in turn affects atmospheric circulation and weather around the world. That includes hurricanes in the Atlantic: El Niño increases the strength of westerly winds across the Atlantic, which creates a lot of wind shear. (Wind shear is the difference between speed and direction of wind over a short distance.) That high wind shear can disrupt tropical storm systems before they’re able to gather a lot of power, which makes it difficult for major hurricanes to form.

El Niño isn’t always good news for storms — hurricanes actually get stronger in the eastern Pacific during El Niño years. And the eastern Pacific hurricane season, which began on May 15, has already seen its first storm — Amanda, which attained maximum wind speeds of 155 m.p.h. (249 km/h), making it just below a Category 5 hurricane. It also makes Amanda the strongest eastern Pacific storm ever recorded in May, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season — and especially for the west coast of Mexico, which bears the brunt of those hurricanes.

And there’s no guarantee that the skies will stay quiet over the Atlantic either. Hurricanes don’t have to be Category 3 or above to cause major damage. Sandy was barely a Category 1 hurricane by the time it made landfall in the Northeast in October 2012, yet its sheer size and rainfall — as well as the fact it squarely hit the most populated section of the country — caused nearly $70 billion in damage. And previous El Niño years saw strong storms, including 2004, when four strong hurricanes hit Florida, and 1992, when Hurricane Andrew caused $26.5 billion in damage. After all, as NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said last month: “It only takes one destructive storm to make for a very bad season.”

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