TIME Environment

Giant Waves Pose New Risk for Ships in Ice-Diminished Arctic

This map shows the extent of Arctic sea ice in July 2014. It was 3.19 million square miles (8.25 million square kilometers). The magenta lines show the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. NBC

"These are still pretty treacherous waters"

Monster waves should be added to the list of hazards faced by ship captains as they plot a course through the waters of the Arctic Ocean, according to a new study that reports observations of house-sized swells in seas that until recently were covered in ice year-round.

“Waves always pose a risk to working at sea,” study author Jim Thomson, an oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle, said via email to NBC News from off the coast of northern Alaska. “The unique thing about the Arctic is that it is changing so rapidly that we cannot apply past measurements to understand future risk…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME cities

Cities Get Their Goats to Be Newest Employees

A goat gives birth at the Iowa State Fair on August 6, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa.
A goat gives birth at the Iowa State Fair on August 6, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson—Getty Images

The animals are now seen as a cost-effective and eco-friendly way for towns to clear areas of unwanted vegetation

American cities big and small are turning to an unlikely new kind of employee in hopes of saving money and improving local streets and parks.

Last month, Boston became the latest city to introduce goats to its workforce as six of the cloven cud-chewers began making a meal of poison ivy and weeds, opening up the latest frontier in urban goatscaping, which has been spreading around the country like so many weeds that the goats have been hired to destroy.

“They’re eating almost everything but the ferns,” says Boston Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson Ryan Woods about Cole, Chester, Christopher, Cassandra, Dalia and Delia—Alpine and LaMancha goats hired to munch through all sorts of unwanted vegetation that have made parts of an area park virtually impassable for humans. The rate for the goat sextet is $2,800 for the eight-week project, one normally reserved for Hazmat suit-wearing humans. It’s being funded through the non-profit Southwest Boston Community Development Corporation, and the group’s executive director Mat Thall estimates that the job performed by regular workers could cost upwards of $8,000.

Goats have become an increasingly cost-effective and eco-friendly way for cities, parks and natural resources departments, and private property owners to clear areas of unwanted vegetation. Outside of Philadelphia, Haverford College has hired goats from the Maryland-based goat purveyor Eco-Goats to eat invasive vines and shrubs. A Madison, Wisconsin-based company called The Green Goats has recently rented the animals out to suburban parks around Chicago. In Victoria, Texas, goats have been unleashed to clear brush in the town’s Riverside Park. Thirty goats were dispatched in a Pittsburgh park to eat weeds and invasive vines, and more than 100 goats were recently used to consume blackberry bushes behind a mall in Lynnwood, Wash.

“If they’re managed properly, goats are a great tool to get in places that are almost impossible to get into with chemicals,” says Ray Holes, who’s been renting out goats in western U.S. towns and cities for close to two decades and is widely known as the Goat King. “And on the whole, it’s probably cheaper, too.”

Goats have a knack for eating all the vegetation humans don’t want around while leaving the good stuff, like grasses, and they can often be trained to acquire a palette for certain invasive species. Goats can eat about 4% of their body weight a day by gobbling up a number of woody plants that are anathema to humans, like nettles, poison ivy, buckthorn and wild parsnip.

While there are dozens of goat-renting companies throughout the U.S., Holes’ is the single biggest purveyor of goats in the country and is considered the Goat King for a very good reason—he owns 9,000 of them that are almost continuously on the job throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Holes charges anywhere from 75 cents to $3 per goat per day depending on where they work and the kind of munching they’re required to do. And he’s increasingly taken on inner city jobs throughout the the western U.S. In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Sun Valley, for example, Holes recently brought in goats to clear areas near hiking and biking trails.

But the most common job for goats is often creating fire breaks—areas made barren of any natural flammable materials. We Rent Goats, a smaller Wilder, Idaho-based business that does exactly what its name says, often works with power companies around the state in clearing those areas. Co-owner Lynda Linquist says 100 of her goats can eat through an acre a day, and they’re almost always a hit.

“Anytime we bring goats in, usually people are thrilled,” Linquist says. “Some will throw huge parties that are tented and catered.”

Linquist, along with her husband Tim, currently rent out 700 goats, mostly to cities that often need help with just a few acres at a time. (We Rent Goats charges $375 an acre.) The goats are generally kept in place by temporary electric fences. But they’re not goat-proof. In Boise, Idaho, about 500 of Linquist’s animals recently got loose.

“They’re goofy gals,” Linquist says. “They’ve busted out of fences. Sometimes they’ll push each other down and steal what the other one’s eating. Sometimes they’ll just go stand in the middle of the road. You’ve got to be thinking one step ahead of them.”

And they’re not always a welcome sight. In June, a hedge fund manager brought in 20 goats to eat through overgrown weeds on abandoned lots in Detroit, but the animals were kicked out two days later by public officials. (It’s illegal to have farm animals within Detroit’s limits.)

And there are at least a handful of landscapers upset by the growing goatscaping economy, as highlighted by The Colbert Report.

Holes, the Goat King, says about half his clients these days are public entities. And he says his business would be even bigger if it wasn’t so difficult finding managers who not only knew how to wrangle hundreds of goats but were also willing to be on the road for weeks or months at a time.

“We have people calling us constantly wanting us to bring our goats in,” Holes says. “But you have to be willing to be away from home. The goats don’t care your kids are having a birthday.”

 

TIME weather

California Is the State of Emergencies

Mudslides, drought, fires and flooding have made the most populous state in the Union a difficult place to live this year

Seven months ago, California’s historic drought prompted governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.

As the farmland-rich Central Valley remained parched, wildfires ravaged Northern and Southern California. Elsewhere in the state, mudslides washed away homes. Then there was a water main break that wasted up to 20 million gallons of water and flooded the UCLA campus.

There’s simply no way around it: California — the most populous state in the Union — is going through some tough times.

TIME Environment

California Catastrophes: Why is the Golden State Always a Mess?

First it's droughts, then wildfires, then mudslides. But despite how it seems, the coast isn't really cursed

California is burning. In several places. Of course, this is news, especially since lives and property are at risk—but in a sense, it isn’t news at all. California burns every year at around this time. California is also sliding downhill. That isn’t really a headline either, since mudslides are annual events too, as a result of torrential rains in the non-burning part of the state. So far this year the slides have caused one death.

California’s Central Valley, meanwhile, is dangerously parched, as a drought that’s already lasted three years shows no signs of letting up. The only hope for desperate farmers is that a long-awaited El Niño weather pattern kicks in later in the year, bringing heavy rains (at which point, see above under “mudslides”). And then there’s the next major earthquake, which is sure to come sooner or later—probably sooner given California’s luck.

In fact, it almost seems as though the state is a disaster magnet. That, however, is something of an illusion. Much of the American West is more or less starved for rainfall, with the exception of the immediate Pacific Coast. It’s hardly a surprise that the region as a whole suffers from periodic droughts; all it takes is a ridge of heat and high pressure to park itself off the Pacific coast and most rainfall will veer northward into Canada before dipping bock down into the inland U.S. The dried-out forests and grasslands that result are then ready fuel for fires caused by lightning or human carelessness. When rains do start, steep hillsides that have been logged or burned or overdeveloped are prone to mudslides.

These are by no means problems unique to California. But the state is so huge, and the population so large, that natural disasters there simply affect more people than they do elsewhere in the U.S. Still, for those of us watching from the other side of the continent, it sometimes seems like you’d have to be a little bit crazy to live in California. But then you consider Mt. Whitney or Yosemite Valley or the Coast Range or the redwood forests—never mind the southern California warmth and the Pacific Ocean as your swimming pool.

So maybe it’s not entirely crazy to live in California. What is entirely crazy is the need to push the envelope—to build houses on hillsides and in forests which may be the most gorgeous locations in the nation’s most gorgeous state, but which are often the most dangerous in terms of natural hazards. If you lived on an airport runway and got hit by a plane, it would be a tragedy—but an entirely predictable and preventable one.

We’re not immune to this sort of craziness out East: we keep putting houses on beaches, for example, when we know perfectly well that they could wash away with the next storm. Once you get away from the shore, though, you’re relatively safe. On this last point, the East may have the edge: Move inland in California, and you could end up next to an active volcano.

TIME Environment

Your Whole Foods Tote Could Be More Harmful Than a Plastic Bag

Banning plastic bags doesn't reduce litter, threaten sea life or contribute to greenhouse gases nearly as much as proponents would have you believe

Do you want paper or plastic?

You’ve probably been told that the right answer is paper – unless you want to hasten climate change and choke marine life. But the plastic bag has been wrongfully convicted. And labeling it as an environmental villain – and banning its usage – is blinding us to better behavior.

Plastic bags haven’t always been Public Enemy No. 1. Introduced by Safeway and Kroger in 1982, they soon dominated the grocery bag market – by 1996, 80 percent of all bags were made from lightweight plastics. Customers loved ‘em. They became thinner, lighter and able to contain more recycled material. And then…the tide turned.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first major city in America to ban the lightweight plastic shopping bag. Since then, over 150 municipalities across the country, including the cities of Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago have passed ordinances imposing similar bans. Most of these ordinances also include mandatory fees on paper and “reusable” plastic bags – like the five cent bag tax in Washington, D.C. In California, home to around 100 plastic bag bans, the state senate is considering a bill (SB 270) that would impose restrictions statewide.

Where did this ire come from? Ban proponents claim that restricting the distribution of plastic bags will have significant environmental benefits and reduce municipal costs. That means money saved for taxpayers. In a recent study for Reason Foundation, Brian Seasholes and I investigated these claims and found they’re mostly untrue.

Let’s start with the basic environmental claims: Banning plastic bags won’t make litter disappear, dissipate litter removal costs, or save innocent animals. Plastic bags constitute a tiny proportion of all litter, so banning them has very little impact on the amount of litter generated. A recent review of numerous analyses of litter in our streets found that plastic shopping bags constituted one percent or less of visible litter in the United States. They also comprise only .4 percent of all municipal solid waste that’s discarded. To that end, there’s no evidence that banning plastic bags has reduced litter removal costs, and it won’t do much in the way of reducing trash collection costs, either. This first point isn’t surprising since litter removal tends to be done by municipal employees or contractors who are not paid per item, so a tiny reduction in the number of items of litter generated makes essentially no difference to costs of removal.

At sea, the impact may be even smaller. Plastic bags have not caused a giant “garbage patch” in the North Pacific. Sure, plastic in the oceans has increased over the past four decades, corresponding to the increase in plastic use in general. Yet the notion that this has resulted in a gigantic landfill at sea is contradicted by the evidence, which shows that most plastic in the oceans is widely dispersed and in the form of tiny pieces.

Plastic bags aren’t threatening the fish, either. Or birds for that matter. Claims that plastic bags kill hundreds of thousands of marine animals seem connected to a misreading of a study that investigated the impact of discarded fishing gear. As David Santillo, a senior biologist with Greenpeace, explained to The Times of London:

“It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite…. With larger mammals it’s fishing gear that’s the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren’t an issue.”

So the animals are safe–but what about us and our homes? Another common claim is that plastic shopping bags block storm drains, so banning them will reduce the risk of flooding. That’s not true. Reducing litter in general and cleaning storm drains are far more effective solutions to the problem.

Okay, you say, but what about the use of resources and emissions of greenhouse gases? Those must be pretty bad, right? Wrong again. Lightweight plastic shopping bags are made from high density polyethylene, the feedstock for which – ethylene – is nearly entirely (over 97 percent) derived from natural gas. Given the newfound abundance of such gas in the United States and globally, there is little reason to be concerned about plastic shopping bags as a significant cause of resource depletion. And if you look at the per bag consumption of energy, water and emissions of greenhouse gases across different types of bags, those numbers are far lower for lightweight plastic bags than for paper or reusable ones.

Of course that does not tell the full story, since some bags are reused more than others. Surveys suggest that most people reuse their lightweight plastic bags, mainly for trash disposal, and on average each one is used 1.6 times. By contrast, paper bags are typically used only once. The thicker plastic bags, made from low density polyethylene, now being promoted as “reusable,” typically are used about 3.1 times.

All of this means that an average consumer using only lightweight plastic bags consumes less energy and water and generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a consumer sporting a Whole Foods tote. Perversely, restrictions on the distribution of plastic bag likely results in an increase in the overall environmental impact of the bags we use to shop.

Not to mention that reusable bags are kind of disgusting, from the public health perspective. Putting food into bags that have previously been used to carry perishable items poses a health risk. Several outbreaks of food-borne diseases have been traced to unhygienic reuse of bags. To solve this problem, consumers are advised to disinfect bags before reuse – a process that consumes resources and time – and to store bags away from sources of germs. Surveys suggest that consumers rarely wash or otherwise disinfect their reusable bags. What a surprise.

If that’s not enough to sell you, consider this: plastic bag bans and mandatory fees on alternative bags disproportionately affect the working poor, for whom the cost of paying for bags represents a greater burden. A dollar spent on ten paper bags is a dollar not available for other purchases. That obviously matters more to a household on a tight budget.

Let’s bag the ban. I’ll take plastic, please.

Julian Morris is Vice President of Research at Reason Foundation and co-author, with Brian Seasholes, of How Green is that Grocery Bag Ban? This piece originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk.

TIME Environment

Gulf of Mexico ‘Dead Zone’ Now the Size of Connecticut

Mike Coleman and Jarad Williams check their crab traps on October 4, 2013 in Grand Isle, Louisiana.
Mike Coleman and Jarad Williams check their crab traps on October 4, 2013 in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Marianna Massey—Getty Images

Surveyors measured a 5,052sq mile expanse of asphyxiating water off of the coast of Louisiana

A survey of marine life in the Gulf of Mexico has found the world’s second-largest “dead zone” ballooning out from the mouth of the Mississippi River and covering an expanse of ocean roughly equal in size to the state of Connecticut.

Scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured the dead zone, an expanse of asphyxiating water marked by unusually low oxygen levels and marine life, at roughly 5,052 square miles. Scientists trace the dead zone to nutrient runoffs from farmlands upriver. The nutrients stimulate algae growth, creating massive algae blooms that sink, decompose and consume oxygen that is vital to the surrounding marine life.

“The Dead Zone off the Louisiana coast is the second largest human-caused coastal hypoxic area in the global ocean and stretches from the mouth of the Mississippi River into Texas waters and less often, but increasingly more frequent, east of the Mississippi River,” wrote the study’s author Nancy Rabalais of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON). The largest dead zone is thought to be in the Baltic Sea, in Scandinavia.

NOAA scientists note that this year’s dead zone is smaller than the one recorded last year, but still well above the federal target of 1,900 square miles.

TIME Environment

Toledo’s Contaminated Water: Here’s What Went Wrong

The contamination came from algae toxins—and it's not likely to be an isolated incident

On Monday, the Toledo, Ohio, Mayor D. Michael Collins lifted the municipal ban on drinking water. The ban had left thousands of Toledo and Michigan residents without drinking water, which was contaminated by a toxin produced by an algae bloom in Lake Erie. If consumed, the toxin could cause symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting. Residents were told not to drink the water, use it to brush their teeth, or—most confounding of all—boil it.

We talked to two experts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as Craig Cox, the senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to explain everything you should know about the contamination.

What is an algae bloom, and why is it toxic?

An algae bloom is a heavy concentration of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae. It looks like a huge mat, turns the bay around Toledo bright green, and produces a neurotoxin called microcystin, which makes people sick.

How does an algae bloom form?

There are a few reasons algae blooms form, but it’s primarily caused by runoff from farm fertilizers. In Toledo’s case, the phosphorus and nitrogen from these fertilizers runs into the Maumee River, which drains right into the Maumee Bay of Lake Erie, where Toledo is located. This spurs the growth of the blooms. The summer heat has likely also played a role in this particular algae bloom’s growth.

Is this a growing problem in water?

Yes. The EPA says there is not a federal standard for blue-green algae in water, but experts say it is in the process of considering one. Farm runoff is not very regulated, so the expectation, according to Cox, is that this kind of water contamination could happen again and again. About 2o or so years ago the U.S. took action to prevent the amount of runoff draining into the lake, and things were looking up. But now, environmentalists are worried we’ve backtracked.

How did the algae get into the drinking water?

The water intake for Toledo’s water supply is located right in the middle of the Maumee Bay where the algae bloom moved to. The water intake brought in both the blue-green algae and the toxins it produces.

Aren’t there purification systems that prevent that?

Yes, but they don’t necessarily address the blue-green algae toxins. The algae bloom moved very close to the water intake system, and the water treatment system experienced much higher levels than they had previously. It put a lot of pressure on the system. The conventional treatment plan the city of Toledo has is a multi-step procedure that removes dangerous pathogens and decontaminates the water in a variety of ways. To directly address the blue-algae toxins, it is using activated carbon to absorb and remove the toxins.

How did the contamination go away in just a couple days?

The EPA worked with Toledo over the weekend to sample the water at both the supply system and the drinking water system, and a couple of things happened. First, the algae bloom moved away from the water intake system, which could have been due to the wind. The second is that Toledo enhanced its treatment system with the aforementioned carbon to specifically address the blue-algae and its toxins.

I thought boiling water decontaminates it. Why couldn’t the residents boil their water?

Boiling water kills things like bacterial organisms, but it does not get rid of blue-algae toxins. Instead, boiling water decreases the volume of the water, and therefore increases the concentration of the toxins, making it worse.

What can be done?

Creating buffers, like plants and trees that stand between farms and the water, may help catch fertilizer chemicals before they get into water ways, spurring algae growth. Farmers could also, theoretically, use less fertilizer, though there are no regulations in place as of now.

TIME Environment

Toledo Lifts Drinking Water Ban

Mayor D. Michael Collins says it's now safe to drink the water

Toledo, Ohio Mayor D. Michael Collins lifted a temporary ban on drinking water Monday, saying the city’s water supply is now safe to drink.

The ban, which began on Saturday, left thousands of residents of Toledo and surrounding areas without drinking water. Water tests showed a toxin, likely from an algae bloom, was contaminating a regional water supply from Lake Erie. Earlier on Monday, the Mayor had said the ban would remain in place. But he later raised a glass of the newly safe water in a toast to his city to prove that it was suitable to drink.

“Here’s to you, Toledo,” he said. “You did a great job.”

Bottled water was trucked in to the area while the ban was in effect, and the Ohio National Guard was purifying water for the residents, the Associated Press reports.

Officials had warned that drinking the contaminated water could cause symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting. Locals were told not to ingest it, use it to brush their teeth, or boil it. Ohio Gov. John Kasich had declared a state of emergency in response to the problem.

 

TIME Environment

Toledo, Ohio, Headed for Third Day With Drinking Water Ban

Algae in Lake Erie may have caused toxin levels to rise

Updated Aug. 4, 6:40 a.m. ET

Water tests on Sunday night showed a toxin thought to come from an algae bloom was continuing to contaminate the regional water supply from Lake Erie, threatening to leave residents of Toledo, Ohio, and part of Michigan without drinking water for a third full day, but officials said the results were improving.

Residents of Toledo and the surrounding area had been instructed on Saturday neither to drink their tap water or using it to brush their teeth, nor boil it, which would increase the concentration of microsystin, the Associated Press reports. Ingestion of the toxin could cause diarrhea, vomiting and other health issues.

While the city’s health department originally said the roughly 400,000 affected residents were free to take baths and showers, it advised that children and people with liver disease and sensitive skin avoid using water from the city’s treatment plant to bathe, CBS News reports. As of Sunday night, no serious illnesses had yet been reported.

City council members in Toledo, Ohio’s fourth-largest city, are due to go over the results at a meeting on Monday, the AP adds.

Ohio Governor John Kasich declared a state of emergency on Saturday and couldn’t say how long the warning would last or what caused the spike in toxin levels. He said the state was working to provide supplies and safe water for the affected areas.

“What’s more important than water? Water’s about life,” Kasich said. “We know it’s difficult. We know it’s frustrating.”

In a Saturday press conference, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins called upon residents to stay calm.

“I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal,” he said, the Toledo Blade reports. “But this is not going to be our new normal. We’re going to fix this. Our city is not going to be abandoned.”

Meanwhile, police officers went to stores to keep the peace as residents stocked up on water in a scene one local said “looked like Black Friday.”

“People were hoarding it,” a different resident, Monica Morales, told the AP. “It’s ridiculous.”

One farmer from a nearby village, John Myers, put 450 gallons of well water into a container on his pickup truck and offered it up at no charge in a high school parking lot.

“I never thought I’d see the day that I’d be giving water away,” he said.

While the city runs more tests, the Environmental Protection Agency office in Cincinnati will also investigate water samples from the lake.

Though water plants along Lake Erie, which provides hydration for 11 million people, treat the water to combat algae, plant operators have grown concerned with threats from toxins in the past few years. A similar warning was in place for a small Ohio township roughly one year ago.

[CBS]

MORE: SlideshowToledo Ohio Crisis

 

TIME Taiwan

Taiwan’s Crippling Gas Explosion Caught On Camera

Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city, is currently in a state of disarray due to blasts caused by a gas explosion. The number of casualties has now surpassed 250, with bodies continuing to be discovered as the day progresses.

Eruptions began around midnight Thursday and continued into the morning Friday. Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) announced that residents had been reporting smells of leaking gas to authorities prior to the explosions.

Investigations are currently underway to uncover how the blasts could have occurred and who was responsible. It is currently assumed that the cause was underground gas leaks from petrochemical pipelines built alongside the city’s sewer system.

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