TIME Environment

Unprecedented California Drought Restrictions Go Into Effect

In this Feb. 4, 2014 file photo, a warning buoy sits on the dry, cracked bed of Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, Calif. Rich Pedroncelli —ASSOCIATED PRESS

Poor water conservation could cost you up to $500 a day

California implemented emergency water-conservation measures today as it struggles to cope with an ongoing drought that has sapped reservoirs and parched farms across the state.

The new rules — the first statewide curbs on water use since the current drought began nearly three years ago — can lead to fines of up to $500 per day for using a hose to clean a sidewalk, running ornamental fountains that do not recirculate water and other wasteful behaviors. The regulations will be in effect for 270 days, unless they are repealed earlier.

Officials have said they don’t expect to issue too many tickets. Instead, they hope the rules will promote conservation by making it clear how serious the drought in California has become.

“We were hoping for more voluntary conservation, and that’s the bottom line,” Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Board, told TIME when the body voted to approve the regulations on July 22. “We hope this will get people’s attention.”

An earlier effort to do that landed with a thud. In January, Governor Jerry Brown issued an emergency declaration and called for residents to voluntarily cut their water use by 20%. Earlier this month, a state survey found that California actually used more water in May than the previous three year average for that month. With the entire state experiencing some degree of drought and 80% of it in an extreme drought, the new measures are the latest effort to wake residents to the crisis.

“We can’t count on it raining next year or even the next,” Marcus said.

TIME Paleontology

What Killed The Dinosaurs? Bad Luck, Study Suggests

The asteroid was simply the straw that broke the camptosaurus's back

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While it’s widely accepted that dinosaurs were made extinct by a six-mile long asteroid that hit Earth, a new study posits that the asteroid was simply the last piece of bad fortune in a run of poor luck that killed the species.

According to the newly released paleontology report titled ‘The Extinction of the Dinosaurs’ – published by the journal Biological Reviews - the dinosaurs could have likely survived the asteroid, had it not been for the unfortunate environmental conditions they were already facing as a species.

Hebrivores were already decreasing in population at the time, says the report, and the loss in biodiversity created a great deal of problems for dinosaurs, most specifically less food available at the bottom of the food chain.

“If the asteroid hit a few million years earlier, when dinosaurs were more diverse, or a few million years later, when they had a chance to recover as they often had done before after diversity losses, then dinosaurs probably wouldn’t have gone extinct,” said University of Edinburgh paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Brusatte, who led the study.

TIME Science

2 New Holes Mysteriously Appear in Siberia

More holes are discovered in Siberia, leaving scientist puzzled

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Two new mysterious holes have appeared in the Siberian permafrost, the Siberian Times reports—just two weeks after the first crater appeared in the northern Yamal peninsula.

The second hole, some 15 meters wide, was found a few hundred kilometers away from the first, also in the Yamal peninsula. Like the first, the second hole has piles of dirt surrounding the perimeter, indicating an excavation or explosion. However, scientists have yet to confirm what’s causing the strange phenomena. Some believe they’re a result of meteorite impacts, while others look towards natural gas explosions under earth’s surface.

 

Mikhail Lapsui, a deputy of the regional parliament, inspected the second hole, reports the Siberian Times, while also gathering information from locals.

“According to local residents, the hole formed on 27 September 2013,” Lapsui told the Times. “Observers give several versions. According to the first, initially at the place was smoking, and then there was a bright flash. In the second version, a celestial body fell there.”

Reindeer herders stumbled upon the third crater alongside a pasture trail in the Taymyr peninsula to the east of Yamal. Scientists estimate that hole to be 60 to 100 meters deep with a diameter of 4 meters.

The two new holes will undergo investigations. The first hole—70 meters deep—revealed an ice-covered lake at the bottom.

[Siberian Times]

TIME Environment

Delay Action on Climate Change by 10 Years and Costs Rocket 40%: Report

Inside the DTE Energy Inc. Coal-Fired Power Plant
Steam rises from a tower at DTE Energy Co.'s Monroe Power Plant in Monroe, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, June 30, 2014. Jeff Kowalsky—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The longer the U.S. holds off action to mitigate climate change, the more costly the effort will become, a new report shows

A new report estimates the cost of mitigating the effects of climate change could rise by as much as 40% if action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is delayed 10 years — immediately outweighing any potential savings of a delay.

The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, U.S. President Barack Obama’s source for advice on economic policy, compared over 100 actions on climate change laid out in 16 studies to extract the average cost of delayed efforts. Released Tuesday, the findings suggests policymakers should immediately confront carbon emissions as a form of “climate insurance.”

“Events such as the rapid melting of ice sheets and the consequent increase of global sea levels, or temperature increases on the higher end of the range of scientific uncertainty, could pose such severe economic consequences as reasonably to be thought of as climate catastrophes,” the report reads. “Confronting the possibility of climate catastrophes means taking prudent steps now to reduce the future chances of the most severe consequences of climate change.”

The report also found that any increase in climate change amid that delayed action would gravely exacerbate the problem; a rise to 3°C above preindustrial temperatures would mean mitigation costs would increase by about 0.9% of global economic output year on year. (To put this into perspective, 0.9% of U.S. economic output is estimated at $150 billion for 2014.)

Tuesday’s report comes as the Obama Administration announces more executive actions to reduce methane emissions to “continue to make progress in modernizing the nation’s natural gas transmission and distribution systems,” according to an administration official.

The White House began renewing its commitment to climate change earlier this year with the release of the third National Climate Assessment in May, which painted a grim picture of the current and future effects of climate change on the environment. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a sweeping plan to cut carbon emissions 30% by 2030. Though environmentalists have praised the plan, it has split some lawmakers and business owners who worry it could have an adverse impact on energy prices.

TIME California

Northern California Wildfire Destroys 13 Homes

A burned out car near a home that was also burned by the Sand fire in Amador County in Northern California on July 27, 2014.
A burned out car near a home that was also burned by the Sand fire in Amador County in Northern California on July 27, 2014. Josh Edelson—EPA

The fire, which has also destroyed 38 outbuildings, was 50% contained late Sunday, but it threatens hundreds of homes in the drought-stricken region

(PLYMOUTH, Calif.) — Wildfires burning near Northern California vineyards and in the Yosemite National Park area were threatening hundreds of homes even as crews worked to contain them.

The Sand Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento was 50% surrounded as of late Sunday, after burning 13 homes and 38 outbuildings. It has scorched roughly 6 square miles of rugged grassland and timber near wine-growing regions in Amador and El Dorado counties.

While crews significantly enlarged the area they had corralled Sunday, “the steep, dry terrain continues to be a challenge” and about 515 homes remain threatened and under evacuation orders, according to a statement the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire started Friday when a vehicle drove over vegetation that is tinder-dry from years of drought.

About 1,900 firefighters, aided by aircraft including a DC-10 air tanker, were working to control the blaze.

The fire destroyed homes, cabins and a collection of 13 antique cars that a man was restoring in the town of Plymouth, the Sacramento Bee reported.

Neighbors, however, stepped in to help those forced from their homes and ranches.

The Amador County fairgrounds made room for displaced animals and as of noon Sunday had taken in 12 horses, seven rabbits, 15 chickens, two dogs, three cats and seven goats, said Karen Spencer, the marketing director for the Amador County Fair.

“We’re right in the middle of our fair, but our livestock people are just moving over and making room,” she told the Bee.

While the Red Cross has been able to provide clothes and food for the evacuees, the neighboring communities have joined the organization to help.

“We’ve got like 10 bags of new and slightly new clothes,” Rodney Stanhope of Placerville said.

Stanhope said his Facebook call has led to people offering to buy underwear and socks and others offering their homes to evacuees.

“Everybody wants to help,” Stanhope said.

In Central California, a fire near Yosemite National Park had spread to about 4 square miles and continued to threaten the small town of Foresta, where it destroyed one home.

An estimated 100 homes in Foresta and the small community of Old El Portal were evacuated Saturday, and residents remained out of their homes Sunday. Two shelters opened for people and animals.

The park itself, home to such sites as Half Dome mountain, Yosemite Meadows, a grove of Giant Sequoia trees and other wonders, remained open throughout Sunday and authorities said none of its treasures were threatened.

Wildfires also burned in other Western states, including Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Utah.

The nation’s largest wildfire — the 618-square-mile Buzzard Complex in eastern Oregon, 45 miles northeast of Burns — was almost fully contained Sunday.

In north-central Washington, the Carlton Complex fire, the biggest in the state’s history, burned as temperatures rose Sunday, but no major flare-ups have been reported.

TIME Environment

The Sixth Great Extinction Is Underway—and We’re to Blame

Goodbye to all that: millions of earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest
Goodbye to all that: millions of Earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest Getty Images

The Earth has been stripped of up to 90% of its species five times before in the past 450 million years. Now it's happening again—and this time there's no rogue asteroid responsible

Here’s hoping the human species likes its own company, because at the rate Earth is going, we might be the only ones we’ve got left.

Nobody can say with certainty how many species there are on Earth, but the number runs well into the millions. Many of them, of course, are on the order of bacteria and spores. The other ones, the ones we can see and count and interact with—to say nothing of the ones we like—are far fewer. And, according to a new and alarming series of papers in Science, their numbers are falling fast, thanks mostly to us.

One of the first great rules of terrestrial biology is that no species is forever. The Earth has gone through five major extinction events before—from the Ordovician-Silurian, about 350 million years ago, to the Cretaceous-Paleogene, 65 million years back. The likely causes included volcanism, gamma ray bursts, and, in the case of the Cretaceous-Paleogene wipeout, an asteroid strike—the one that killed the dinosaurs. But the result of all of the extinctions was the same: death, a lot of it, for 70% to 90% of all species, depending on the event.

As increasingly accepted theories have argued—and as the Science papers show—we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction, the unsettlingly-named Anthropocene, or the age of the humans.

The numbers are sobering: Over all, there has been a human-driven decline in the populations of all species by 25% over the past 500 years, but not all groups have suffered equally. Up to a third of all species of vertebrates are now considered threatened, as are 45% of most species of invertebrates. Among the vertebrates, amphibians are getting clobbered, with 41% of species in trouble, compared to just 17% of birds—at least so far. The various orders of insects suffer differently too: 35% of Lepidopteran species are in decline (goodbye butterflies), which sounds bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to the similar struggles of nearly 100% of Orthoptera species (crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, look your last).

As the authors of all this loss, we are doing our nasty work in a lot of ways. Overexploitation—which is to say killing animals for food, clothing or the sheer perverse pleasure of it—plays a big role, especially among the so-called charismatic megafauna. So we get elephants slaughtered for their tusks, rhinos poached for their horns and tigers shot and skinned for their pelts, until oops—no more elephants, rhinos or tigers.

Habitat destruction is another big driver, particularly in rainforests, where 25,000 miles (75,000 km) of tree cover are lost annually—the equivalent of denuding one Panama per year, year after year. And you don’t even have to chop or burn an ecosystem completely away to threaten its species; sometimes all it takes is cutting a few roads across it or building a few farms or homes in the wrong spots. Environmental fragmentation like this can be more than sufficient to cut species off from food or water, to say nothing of mates, and start them in a downward spiral that becomes irreversible.

Then too there is global warming, which makes once-hospitable habitats too hot or dry or stormy for species adapted to different conditions. Finally, as TIME’s Bryan Walsh wrote in last week’s cover story, there are invasive species—pests like the giant African snail, the lionfish or the emerald ash borer—which hitch a ride into a new ecosystem on ships or packing material, or are brought in as pets, and then reproduce wildly, crowding out native species.

The result of all this species loss—what the Science researchers dub defaunation—goes far beyond simply leaving us with a less rich, less diverse world. After all, the Earth bounced back from far worse extinctions and did just fine. But it bounced back a different way each time, and the most recent version, the one in which we emerged, is the one we like—and it’s easy to destroy.

Loss of species, the authors point out, means loss of pollinators—which is a real problem since 75% of food crops rely on insects if they’re going to thrive. Nutrient cycles—the decomposition of organic matter that feeds the soil—collapse if mobile species can’t get from place to place and do their living and dying in a fairly even distribution. The same is true for water quality, which relies on all manner of animals to prevent lakes and rivers and streams from becoming too algae-dense or oxygen poor. Pest control suffers as well — when animals like bats are no longer around the eat the insect pests that attack crops, it’s bad news for autumn harvests. North America alone is projected to suffer $22 billion in agricultural losses as desirable bat populations continue to decline.

It oughtn’t take appealing to our self-interest to get us to quit making such a mess of what we’re increasingly coming to learn is an exceedingly destructible world. But it’s that very self-interest that led us to make that mess in the first place. We can either start to change our ways, or we can keep going the way we are—at least until the Anthropocene extinction claims one final species: our own.

TIME Environment

Only 1/3 of Americans ‘Willing’ to Change Behavior for Environment

As Michael Grunwald noted in his piece on TIME’s recent energy poll, Americans lag far behind other nations in their willingness to help the environment. Here, only 33% of Americans say they “strongly agree” they would modify their behavior to reduce their carbon footprint, compared to 43% of people from other countries.

Americans Take Less Responsibility For Clean Energy

 

For more stories on the New Energy Reality, click here.

TIME Environment

Satellites Show Major Southwest Groundwater Loss

A new report suggests that large swaths of groundwater in the Colorado River Basin have been depleted

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Groundwater losses from the Colorado River basin appear massive enough to challenge long-term water supplies for the seven states and parts of Mexico that it serves, according to a new study released Thursday that used NASA satellites.

Researchers from NASA and the University of California, Irvine say their study is the first to quantify how much groundwater people in the West are using during the region’s current drought.

Stephanie Castle, the study’s lead author and a water resource specialist at the University of California, Irvine, called the extent of the groundwater depletion “shocking.”

“We didn’t realize the magnitude of how much water we actually depleted” in the West, Castle said.

Since 2004, researchers said, the Colorado River basin — the largest in the Southwest — has lost 53 million acre feet, or 17 trillion gallons, of water. That’s enough to supply more than 50 million households for a year, or nearly fill Lake Mead — the nation’s largest water reservoir — twice.

Three-fourths of those losses were groundwater, the study found.

Unlike reservoirs and other above-ground water, groundwater sources can become so depleted that they may never refill, Castle said. For California and other western states, the groundwater depletion is drawing down the reserves that protect consumers, farmers and ecosystems in times of drought.

“What happens if it isn’t there?” Castle said during a phone interview. “That’s the scary part of this analysis.”

The NASA and University of California research used monthly gravity data to measure changes in water mass in the basin from December 2004 to November of last year, and used that data to track groundwater depletion.

“Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water-allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico, Jay Famiglietti, senior author on the study and senior water-cycle specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

The Colorado River basin supplies water to about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states — California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — as well as to people and farms in part of Mexico.

California, one of the nation’s largest agricultural producers, is three years into drought. While the state has curtailed use of surface water, the state lacks a statewide system for regulating — or even measuring — groundwater.

TIME energy

Obama Approves Sonic Cannons to Map Atlantic for Offshore Oil and Gas

Offshore drilling in the Atlantic is up for debate
The Atlantic offshore territory has been off limits to U.S. oil drilling, but that could change Brasil2 via Getty Images

Over environmental objections, the Obama Administration moves forward with exploration that could yield new domestic oil and gas sources

The Obama administration reopened part of the Eastern seaboard Friday to offshore oil and gas exploration, promising to boost job creation in the energy sector while at the same time fueling the fears of environmental groups.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) estimates that 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas lies beneath the coast from Florida to Maine. The recent decision allows exploration from Florida to Delaware and could create thousands of new jobs supporting expanded energy infrastructure along the East Coast.

“Offshore energy exploration and production in the Atlantic could bring new jobs and higher revenues to states and local communities, while adding to our country’s capabilities as an energy superpower,” American Petroleum Institute upstream director Erik Milito said in a statement.

Environmentalists worry about damage to shorelines, and to the tourist industry. They also worry about the safety of ocean wildlife. The exploration will initially be conducted via seismic surveys that use sonic cannons to locate oil and gas deposits beneath the ocean floor. The cannons emit sound waves louder than a jet engine every ten seconds for weeks at a time.

“We’re definitely concerned,” Hamilton Davis, energy and climate change director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, told TIME. “The exploration activities lead in the direction of actual development of oil and gas, and from our perspective as a coastal organization that worries about our environmental ecological landscape as well as our [tourism] economy, the oil and gas industry certainly doesn’t seem to fit into that equation. Just the impacts from exploration activities on marine wildlife I think would give most people pause… You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of animals that will be negatively impacted as a consequence of these activities.”

BOEM said it approved the seismic surveys with the environment in mind. “After thoroughly reviewing the analysis, coordinating with Federal agencies and considering extensive public input, the bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites,” said Acting BOEM Director Walter D. Cruickshank in a statement.

Sonic cannons are already used in the western Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska, but many constituents and elected officials in the newly opened East Coast territory have expressed their concerns about the testing and eventual drilling. Congressional officials from Florida, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, signed a letter to President Obama opposing the decision.

“Expanding unnecessary drilling offshore simply puts too much at risk. Florida has more coastline than any other state in the continental United States and its beaches and marine resources support the local economy across the state,” the letter states.

The area to be mapped is in federal waters, not under the jurisdiction of state law. Energy companies will apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.

 

TIME climate

June Was Hottest on Record, NOAA Says

Temperatures Soar To Highest Of The Year
A giant plastic ice cream cone glints in the sun on the South Beach Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images

May was the hottest on record, too

Not only did 2014 boast the hottest May on record, but new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the global population experienced its hottest June ever, too.

Well, at least this summer is keeping things consistent.

According to the NOAA, the combined average temperatures of land and ocean surfaces was 1.30°F above the 20th century average of 59.9°F. If only looking at land surface temperature, though, it was only the seventh highest June on record.

Anomalies are now becoming less of an anomaly as nine of the ten warmest Junes recorded occurred in the 21st century, including every June in the last five years.

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