TIME China

Study Finds Pollution in China Causes 1.6 Million Deaths a Year

china pollution
Damir Sagolj—Reuters A woman holds a child as travelers wait for the highway from Beijing to China's Hebei Province to reopen after it was closed due to low visibility, on a heavily polluted morning on Aug. 3, 2015.

That's about 4,400 people per day

Air pollution in China is responsible for the deaths of about 1.6 million people every year, or about 4,400 per day, according to a new study.

Researchers from Berkeley Earth, a non-profit climate research organization, published an online study Thursday that finds that pollution causes about 17% of deaths in China. Researchers came to their conclusions after analyzing four months of data taken at 1,500 locations across China, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The most deadly pollutant, according to the study which is set to be published in the peer reviewed journal PLOS One, comes in the form of tiny particles derived from places like electric power plants and fossil fuels used in homes and factories for heating. These particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream and cause illnesses ranging from asthma to heart disease.

According to the study, “92% of the population of China experienced [more than] 120 hours of unhealthy air” over the four month period as defined by the American Environmental Protection Agency “and 38% experienced average concentrations that were unhealthy.”

The study follows others that have determined between 1.2 and 2 million people die due to pollution in China every year.

TIME Environment

This Year’s El Niño Could Be the Strongest Ever Recorded

The climate phenomenon could bring hotter temperatures—and drought relief to California

The world could be headed for one of the strongest El Niños in recorded history, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Thursday. A strong El Niño event would disrupt weather patterns across the globe, boost global temperatures—and help relieve California’s historic drought.

El Niño, a climate phenomenon triggered by unusually warm temperatures along the equatorial Pacific, affects weather across the planet. The warmer Pacific surface temperatures are above the norm, the more significant forecasters predict El Niño will be. This year, climate forecasters observed sea surface temperatures more than 3.6°F (2°C) above average across the east central Pacific Ocean. That level of heat has only been recorded three times in the last 65 years, and all three occurrences matched with strong El Niño events.

“Since March above normal sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific have continued to increase,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, on a conference call for journalists. “We’re predicting this El Niño could be among the strongest El Niños in the historical record.”

“This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño,” added Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

The rise in Pacific temperatures during El Niño changes the way air circulates across the globe, impacting precipitation patterns and climate. Globally, El Niño also increases temperatures, making it even more likely that next year will break records as the warmest ever. The 1997-1998 El Niño contributed to making 1998 one of the warmest years on record. That year is the only year before 2000 to rank in the top 10 warmest.

El Niño will likely contribute to above average precipitation across much of the southern United States, all the way from California to Florida. Areas surrounding the northern Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes and Western Alaska will likely receive below average precipitation. El Niño has already played a part in a relatively weak Atlantic hurricane season by spreading storms over a larger area, and thereby decreasing the chance they develop into hurricanes. NOAA models suggest that El Niño will peak in fall 2015 and continue into the spring of 2016.

Read More Strong El Niño Set to Bring California Drought Relief

For California, El Niño will likely bring welcome relief from a years-long drought. The 1997 El Niño event broke precipitations record in the state and led to severe flooding.

But while the area will almost certainly receive increased rainfall, experts say the state will still have a way to go to alleviate drought even with a strong El Niño. For one, California’s drought has lasted four long years—one year of heavy rainfall won’t make up for that deficit. (A recent NASA report indicated that California’s rain debt is equivalent to one full year of average precipitation.) El Niño would need to generate up to 3 times the average rainfall to balance out the drought. In California’s wettest year on record, California received only 1.9 times what it gets in rain during an average year, according to Kevin Werner, NOAA director of western region climate services.

Nor will it help that the climate event will likely only increase precipitation in the southern part of the state, far away from the mountain tops and reservoirs that provide most of California’s water.

“Just because something is favored, it doesn’t guarantee it will happen,” said Halpert.More importantly for California…one season of additional rain and snowfall is unlikely to erase four years of drought.”

Read next: Searching Questions Asked in the Aftermath of the Tianjin Blasts

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TIME Environment

Navajo Nation Says It Will Sue EPA Over Toxic Spill

Animas River mine waste water
Jerry McBride—Durango Herald Mine waste from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton fills the Animas River at Bakers Bridge on Aug. 6, 2015 in Durango, Colo.

"The spill has impacted us religiously, emotionally, financially"

The Navajo Nation will sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over an accidental spill of contaminated wastewater, the nation’s president, Russell Begaye, told TIME on Wednesday.

Approximately 3 million gallons of wastewater were released last week into the Animas and San Juan rivers while EPA crew were investigating contamination at the Gold King Mine in Southwest Colorado.

“The spill has impacted us religiously, emotionally, financially,” Begaye said. According to the president, the spill has affected over 100,000 Navajo people, who comprise over two-thirds of the total population that resides along the contaminated San Juan River.

In the lawsuit, the territory will ask the EPA to pay for the expenses incurred by Navajo citizens and farmers who seen their livelihoods affected by the spill.

Begayes says the accident has forced the government to cut off drinking water and irrigation water from the San Juan River. Farmers have been forced to take their cattle out of the riverbed area and relocate to inland areas.

“Relocated farmers now need to buy hay and haul water; others living along the river are forced to drive up to 200 miles to find bottled water. People with an average salary of $12,000 are expending dollars on things that they wouldn’t have,” Begaye said.

He added that the Navajo economy is primarily agricultural, and centers around five months of the year. The spill has caught them in the middle of this time period.

The Navajo president also accused the EPA of deliberate inaction. “The EPA could have designated the mine area as a Superfund site,” he said, referencing a federal law aimed at long-term cleanup of severely polluted areas. “They had long been told by geologists that the catastrophe was going to happen,” Begaye said.

Begaye also complained the contamination figures reported by the EPA have been inconsistent. The agency had initially reported the release of about 1 million gallons of contaminated water, later revising that figure to over 3 million gallons. “Makes you really question the accuracy of these reports,” he said.

The Navajo president was told by EPA officials in their latest meeting that his people will have to live in a state of uncertainty, and it could take “decades” for a full clean-up.

The EPA did not return requests to confirm this exchange, but shared a statement noting the organization was “ceas[ing] any field investigation at [other] mines” unless there is an “imminent risk in a specific case.” According to the statement, sent by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to regional administrators, the agency is in the process of initiating an independent assessment into last week’s incident to avoid similar incidents at other sites.

Contaminated water was still flowing out of the mine outburst site as of Wednesday morning, according to Begaye. At the time of this interview, his office was compiling documents to file an official lawsuit. The state of New Mexico, also impacted by the spill, may join Navajo Nation in their lawsuit, he added.

TIME Environment

Here Are America’s Greenest Colleges

Four of the top 10 are in California

The University California, Irvine (UCI) took the top spot as the greenest school in the United States for the second year in a row, according to the Sierra Club’s annual rankings of sustainable universities.

The school has a nationally-recognized energy efficiency program and, like the rest of the University of California system, has committed to going carbon neutral by 2025. UCI also offers a number engagement programs to educate students about climate change. The University of California, Davis, University of WisconsinOshkosh, Colorado State University and Oberlin College round out the top five. Four of the top 10 are in California

“A school can’t place number one even if they’re doing amazing work sourcing their energy from [renewable] sources, if they don’t have a strong recycling program, if they’re not teaching students to be eco-literate,” said Avital Andrews, lifestyle editor at the Sierra Club’s magazine. “It’s a culture that permeates the school.”

The Sierra Club evaluates 200-page applications submitted by each school according to rubric that emphasizes a wide range of sustainability priorities. Andrews said the guide is intended to serve at least in part as a resource for high schoolers looking to attend a sustainable college.

“It’s educating the people who are going out and going to be leading the country pretty soon,” she said. “And if there’s not a strong culture of sustainability, it’s not going to be top of mind when they go out and live their lives.”


TIME Environment

What The Colorado Waste Water Spill Tells Us About Mining Contamination

Scientists grappled with a spill of toxic wastewater, the day after the EPA said that the accident had led 3 million gallons of water runoff

Scientists grappled with the consequences of a spill of toxic wastewater on Monday, one day after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that an accident had led to 3 million gallons of mining runoff flowing into a river in Colorado used for drinking water. But researchers who study water resources in the region say the spill, while significant on its own, is just the latest example of the much broader problem of water contamination from mining processes.

“In the Rocky Mountain area, acid rock and acid mine drainage is a major water quality problem,” said Diane McKnight, a professor civil, environmental and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado. “This is certainly an unfortunate event, but the impact of acid rock and acid rock drainage is well recognized and understood in Colorado.”

Acid drainage results when water flows through acidic minerals that have been exposed due to mining. Water that contains these minerals in high volumes becomes unsafe for drinking. Colorado alone has hundreds of mines that have created acid drainage—but rarely on the scale of last week’s incident.

Last week’s event was the result of an accident inadvertently caused by EPA workers looking into reports that a mine was leaking contaminated water. During the process, loose material gave way and released millions of gallons of contaminated water, turning the Animas River orange and yielding it unusable for days. Water is still spilling into the river at a rate of 500 gallons per minute, though the EPA has set up a filtering system aimed at removing toxic elements, including copper, lead and manganese, according to regional EPA administrator Shaun McGrath. Still, officials urged local residents to await further tests, which should happen within the next few days, before using the water. The river has been temporarily disconnected from the public water supply.

The consequences of last week’s incident could have lasting repercussions. Events like heavy rain and melting snow that disturb sediment settled at the bottom of the river may release some of the toxic minerals deposited there by the spill. If that happens, local officials will need a game plan to test the water and inform those who may be at risk, said Williams.

The spill has angered local residents, many of whom depend on the river for livestock and tourist businesses. Still, this is hardly the first mining wastewater spill in the area. Largely due to mine pollution, the water doesn’t support a very robust ecosystem, though some organisms manage to live in it. “It’s not correct to say these are lifeless streams,” said McKnight. “There’s certainly bacteria and some algae growing.”

Ultimately, Williams says he hopes the incident raises awareness about the bigger problem of mines polluting waterways throughout the region. The technology exists, Williams says, and efforts by the EPA and other agencies to remediate toxic sites need to be funded fully.

“You hear about pollution, it doesn’t really register,” he said. “Then you see this blob of yellow running down the river.”


TIME Environment

Stinking Mounds of Seaweed are Piling Up on Caribbean Beaches

The seaweed invasion, which appears to have hit most of the Caribbean this year, is generally considered a nuisance and has prompted some hotel cancellations from tourists but scientists consider washed-up seaweed an important part of the coastal eco-system. Some scientists have also associated the large quantities of seaweed this year in the Caribbean region with higher than normal temperatures and low winds, both of which influence ocean currents, and they draw links to global climate change. (AP PhotoRicardo Arduengo)
Ricardo Arduengo—AP Large quantities of seaweed lays ashore at the Playa Los Machos beach, in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 8, 2015.

Brownish seaweed has in some cases piled up nearly 10 feet high on beaches, choking scenic coves and cutting off moored boats

KINGSTON, Jamaica — The picture-perfect beaches and turquoise waters that people expect on their visits to the Caribbean are increasingly being fouled by mats of decaying seaweed that attract biting sand fleas and smell like rotten eggs.

Clumps of the brownish seaweed known as sargassum have long washed up on Caribbean coastlines, but researchers say the algae blooms have exploded in extent and frequency in recent years. The 2015 seaweed invasion appears to be a bumper crop, with a number of shorelines so severely hit that some tourists have canceled summer trips and lawmakers on Tobago have termed it a “natural disaster.”

From the Dominican Republic in the north, to Barbados in the east, and Mexico’s Caribbean resorts to the west, officials are authorizing emergency money to fund cleanup efforts and clear stinking mounds of seaweed that in some cases have piled up nearly 10 feet high on beaches, choked scenic coves and cut off moored boats.

With the start of the region’s high tourism season a few months away, some officials are calling for an emergency meeting of the 15-nation Caribbean Community, worried that the worsening seaweed influx could become a chronic dilemma for the globe’s most tourism-dependent region.

“This has been the worst year we’ve seen so far. We really need to have a regional effort on this because this unsightly seaweed could end up affecting the image of the Caribbean,” said Christopher James, chairman of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association.

There are various ideas about what is causing the seaweed boom that scientists say started in 2011, including warming ocean temperatures and changes in the ocean currents due to climate change. Some researchers believe it is primarily due to increased land-based nutrients and pollutants washing into the water, including nitrogen-heavy fertilizers and sewage waste that fuel the blooms.

Brian Lapointe, a sargassum expert at Florida Atlantic University, says that while the sargassum washing up in normal amounts has long been good for the Caribbean, severe influxes like those seen lately are “harmful algal blooms” because they can cause fish kills, beach fouling, tourism losses and even coastal dead zones.

“Considering that these events have been happening since 2011, this could be the ‘new normal.’ Time will tell,” Lapointe said by email.

The mats of drifting sargassum covered with berry-like sacs have become so numerous in the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean they are even drifting as far away as to West Africa, where they’ve been piling up fast in Sierre Leone and Ghana.

Sargassum, which gets its name from the Portuguese word for grape, is a floating brownish algae that generally blooms in the Sargasso Sea, a 2 million-square-mile (3 million-square-kilometer) body of warm water in the North Atlantic that is a major habitat and nursery for numerous marine species. Like coral reefs, the algae mats are critical habitats and mahi-mahi, tuna, billfish, eels, shrimp, crabs and sea turtles all use the algae to spawn, feed or hide from predators.

But some scientists believe the sargassum besieging a growing number of beaches may actually be due to blooms in the Atlantic’s equatorial region, perhaps because of a high flow of nutrients from South America’s Amazon and Orinoco Rivers mixing with warmer ocean temperatures.

“We think this is an ongoing equatorial regional event and our research has found no direct connection with the Sargasso Sea,” said Jim Franks, senior research scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

Whatever the reason, the massive sargassum flow is becoming a major challenge for tourism-dependent countries. In large doses, the algae harms coastal environments, even causing the deaths of endangered sea turtle hatchlings after they wriggle out of the sand where their eggs were buried. Cleanup efforts by work crews may also worsen beach erosion.

“We have heard reports of recently hatched sea turtles getting caught in the seaweed. If removal of seaweed involves large machinery that will also obviously cause impacts to the beaches and the ecosystems there,” said Faith Bulger, program officer at the Washington-based Sargasso Sea Commission.

Mexican authorities recently said they will spend about $9.1 million and hire 4,600 temporary workers to clean up seaweed mounds accumulating along that country’s Caribbean coast. Part of the money will be used to test whether the sargassum can be collected at sea before it reaches shore.

Some tourists in hard-hit areas are trying to prevent their summer vacations from being ruined by the stinking algae.

“The smell of seaweed is terrible, but I’m enjoying the sun,” German tourist Oliver Pahlke said during a visit to Cancun, Mexico.

Sitting at a picnic table on the south coast of Barbados, Canadian vacationer Anne Alma said reports of the rotting seaweed mounds she’d heard from friends did not dissuade her from visiting the Eastern Caribbean island.

“I just wonder where the seaweed is going to go,” the Toronto resident said one recent morning, watching more of mats drift to shore even after crews had already trucked away big piles to use as mulch and fertilizers.

TIME Environment

Could Obama’s Clean Power Plan Lower Your Electric Bill?

Dave Scarantino, senior installer for SolarCity Corp, installs solar panels on the rooftop of a home in Kendall Park, N.J., U.S., on Tuesday, July 28, 2014.
Michael Nagle—© 2015 Bloomberg Finance LP Dave Scarantino, senior installer for SolarCity Corp, installs solar panels on the rooftop of a home in Kendall Park, N.J., U.S., on Tuesday, July 28, 2014.

Critics of President Obama’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. energy sector have asserted for more than a year that the plan will do more harm than good, costing homeowners and businesses by slashing jobs and driving up prices.

But researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have concluded that the Clean Power Plan will actually lower electricity bills.

In a report released last week, public policy professor Marilyn Brown found that boosting renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power would reduce energy costs in the long run as they become more readily available.

Even if energy costs did go up in the short run, she argued that would cause consumers to invest more in things like energy-efficient appliances, which would again lead to lower electricity bills over time.

“The idea that customer electricity bills may actually go down may seem counterintuitive to some, but it’s a natural outcome of making smart investments in energy efficiency — better heating and cooling equipment, programmable thermostats, appliances, replacing incandescent bulbs, using cogeneration, as well as insulation and windows,” said Brown in an email to TIME. “These investments can all produce lower electricity bills.”

Not everyone buys that analysis, however.

Nicolas Loris, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said that there’s nothing stopping consumers from buying energy-efficient appliances now, so that can’t be a reason for arguing the plan would reduce costs.

“Families and businesses already have the option to buy more energy efficient goods,” he said. “This logic is like a business telling an employee they’re getting a pay cut but to save money they can shop at Target. The option to shop at Target exists without the pay cut.”

But Brown says that people need to take the long view of the energy market.

“As energy is used more efficiently, non-competitive power plants can be retired, construction of new coal plants can be deferred and transmission and distribution line upgrades can be delayed,” says Brown. “All of which would lower rates and further lower the energy bills of Americans.”

TIME Colorado

A Massive Waste Spill Turned This River in Colorado Orange

Animas River mine waste water
Jerry McBride—Durango Herald Mine waste from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton fills the Animas River at Bakers Bridge on Aug. 6, 2015 in Durango, Colo.

The EPA accidentally caused the spill, reports say

About 1 million gallons of mine waste spilled into a Colorado waterway on Wednesday, turning the water bright orange and prompting officials to warn residents to avoid recreational use of the Animas River.

San Juan County health officials say the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety were investigating another contamination when they “unexpectedly triggered a large release of mine waste water into the upper portions of Cement Creek.” Cement Creek is a tributary of the Animas River.

Residents in parts of Colorado have been urged to cut back on water use and avoid the Animas River until officials are sure the river is free from contamination. According to a release by San Juan County Health Department, the waste contains “high levels of sediment and metals.”

Residents in Durango, Colo. were bracing for the contaminated spillage to reach their area on Thursday afternoon. According to the Durango Herald, the city has stopped watering local parks for at least three days and is urging residents to conserve water until they’re sure their supply isn’t contaminated. The city has also ceased pumping water to a local college and golf course.


TIME Environment

See Striking New Images of Algae Blooms in the Great Lakes

Algae Bloom in Lake St. Clair
NASA/Goddard's MODIS Rapid Res/EPA A satellite image of algal blooms around the Great Lakes, visible as swirls of green in this image of Lake St. Clair and in western Lake Erie, taken on July 28, 2015 and released on Aug. 4, 2015.

NASA released these images on Tuesday showing algal blooms in Lake St. Clair (above) and Lake Erie (below). The image was taken by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite on July 28, 2015 as part of a larger effort between NASA, NOAA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to protect the public from toxic algal blooms in freshwater.

Lake Erie Algal Blooms
NASA/NOAAAlgal blooms on Lake Erie, captured on July 28, 2015.

“There’s very little data on the severity of the blooms in Lake St. Clair from a monitoring perspective,” Dr. Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer at NOAA, told TIME. “That particular bloom, while it could be cyanobacteria, we don’t have confirmation.”

The bloom in Lake Erie, which NOAA forecasted in July may rival the algal bloom of 2011, has been confirmed to be toxic cyanobacteria. Western Lake Erie had one of the wettest Junes on record, producing one of the highest measured concentrations of phosphorous, the nutrient that feeds these blooms. “If you go swimming in it, at the minimum your intestines will be in distress,” Dr. Stumpf told TIME. “If there’s a lot, there’s a risk of liver damage. Some people can get dermatitis from skin exposure to high concentrations of the toxin. It is deadly to dogs. Water dogs should not go into where there’s scum or very obvious discoloration.”

“The other aspect is that while water treatment is very effective, [algal blooms] increase the cost. There’s a lot more that has to be done to the water when you have these blooms. There’s considerable effort and expense going into treating the water.”

NOAA will continue to monitor the two lakes, using a combination of data derived from weekly water samples, continual sensors that detect pigment these algae produce, and imagery from Landsat 8 and other lower resolution satellites. The addition of NASA’s ocean color processing to the Landsat 8 imagery will improve NOAA’s ability to analyze and forecast algal blooms.

Algal Blooms Lake Erie Lake Sinclair
NOAA, with data from NASA Aqua and Terra satellitesA satellite timelapse view of the algal blooms in Lake Erie and Lake Sinclair on July 20, 23, and 28, 2015.

“In Lake St. Clair we need a confirmation of what we’re dealing with so we can confirm whether it is cyanobacteria and whether it is toxic,” said Stumpf. “Then from our side we monitor for the bloom, get the distribution, the concentration, and then we forecast where it’s going. We try to provide enough information to advise the water suppliers, the state agencies, the parks of when they’re at risk of the blooms showing up at their doorstep.”

“A bloom like this will likely be around well into September. When it’s this big it tends to last. 2011 went to the beginning of October – I hope this does not last that long. Unfortunately that’s not unusual to have something that’s strikingly beautiful and terrible at the same time.”

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