Tag Archives: islands

California’s out-of-control wildfires are officially the worst in state history.

While we’re all talking about IQ tests, here’s a math problem: Imagine you’re a tree with 56 apples to take care of. One day, a massive storm comes and knocks out about four of those apples. They’re all on the ground now, kind of smushed.

But one of those apples didn’t have the same advantages as the other ones — too many pesticides growing up, let’s say — and it’s extra-smushed. It is also $74 billion in debt. (You may ask: Who loaned an apple $74 billion? Hedge funds have long embraced predatory lending practices, but that’s a math problem for another time.)

Anyway — as the tree, it’s your job to get those apples back in shape. You decide to allocate $36.5 billion in fallen-apple assistance. But only $5 billion specifically goes to that extra-smushed, indebted apple, and then that apple has to pay it back. It has to share about $14 billion with the other less-indebted and -smushed apples.

Surprise! This isn’t really a math problem — it’s an ethics problem. The tree is the United States government, the apples are all of its states and territories, the smushed apples are Florida, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the extra-smushed apple is Puerto Rico. Donald Trump’s self-lauded aid plan for the ailing and indebted territory is a loan.

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California’s out-of-control wildfires are officially the worst in state history.

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‘Dammit, this is not a good news story,’ San Juan mayor responds to Trump official.

The recovery effort trudges along after the Category 4 storm destroyed what Irma spared, flattening buildings and tangling power lines. More than 100,000 people live in the U.S. territory, and many of them are now waiting for power, medicine, and fuel.

“It will be a while before this place returns to a semblance of normalcy,” National Guard Chief Joseph Lengyel told Fox News.

Public school buildings are too damaged for students to attend classes, the New York Times reports. The main hospitals will have to be torn down and rebuilt. The power might not be back until December. And authorities have advised residents to boil their water before consumption, fearing contamination.

Making recovery harder is the nearly $2 billion in debt the Virgin Islands is carrying. That’s more per capita than Puerto Rico.

“The economy evaporated pretty much overnight,” one restaurant owner told the Times. Tourism makes up a third of the islands’ gross domestic product. The biggest resorts will stay closed until at least next year, meaning fewer customers for restaurants and bars and fewer jobs.

While attention is focused on the humanitarian crisis affecting millions in Puerto Rico, 40 miles to the west, the Virgin Islands remain mostly out of mind.

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‘Dammit, this is not a good news story,’ San Juan mayor responds to Trump official.

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Hurricane Maria poses a catastrophic threat to the Caribbean

This post has been updated to reflect Maria’s upgrade to Category 5.

The already miserable hurricane season is about to get worse, as Hurricane Maria barrels toward a storm-weary Caribbean.

Maria rapidly strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane on Monday, packing winds of at least 160 mph as it neared the eastern Caribbean island country of Dominica — one of the fastest intensifying hurricanes in history. Meteorologists with the National Hurricane Center warned that the storm would likely keep growing stronger as it moves closer to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, home to more than 3.5 million people. Ocean waters on its path are much warmer than normal, and atmospheric conditions are nearly ideal for a storm to intensify.

The latest forecast takes Maria ashore in Puerto Rico early Wednesday as a Category 5 — a worst-case scenario. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló declared a state of emergency to help the island prepare and speed the flow of disaster aid.

All this comes less than two weeks after Irma struck the Caribbean as one of the strongest hurricanes in history. The damage from Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands was so severe that local officials, whose economy depends on tourism, have told visitors to stay away. Cruise ships have been put into service as rescue vessels. In some of the hardest hit islands, like Barbuda, Anguilla, and St. Martin, recovery could take years.

Even though the wounds of Irma are still fresh, it’s important to remember that a hurricane as strong as Maria is exceedingly rare in the Caribbean. According to weather records dating back to 1851, no Category 5 hurricane has ever struck Dominica. Hurricane David, in 1979, was the only Category 4 to do so. That storm ruined the local economy and left roughly three-quarters of the population homeless.

Irma was a powerful Category 5, but its center moved past Puerto Rico without a direct landfall, so although the island experienced massive power outages, Irma could have been much worse.

Maria will likely be much worse.

Weather models show Maria crossing the center of Puerto Rico at peak strength, becoming the first Category 5 to do so since 1928, and only the second in recorded history. The result could be catastrophic, with heavy rainfall leading to inland flooding and landslides, winds in excess of 170 mph battering coastal cities, and storm surge of six to nine feet inundating homes and businesses along the shoreline.

It’s impossible to overstate how serious a storm like Maria is. The U.S. Virgin Islands’ Governor Kenneth Mapp warned of high winds and torrential rain and called on islanders to prepare, even as relief supplies for Irma continued to pour in. “If your home is damaged,” he said, “do not ride out this storm in your home.”

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Hurricane Maria poses a catastrophic threat to the Caribbean

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Hurricane Irma makes landfall in Florida

One of the strongest storms ever to touch U.S. soil arrived on Sunday morning, crossing near Key West as a Category 4 hurricane. With sustained winds of 130 mph, a storm surge as high as 15 feet, and waves an additional 30 feet on top of that, Irma is expected to lash nearly the entire state for at least 24 hours.

The storm is so huge that tropical storm watches extend as far inland as Atlanta. As of midday Sunday, it yielded around 80 terajoules of energy, more than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The biggest worry for meteorologists is Irma’s immense coastal flooding potential, which could perfectly align to create a worst-case scenario for Gulf Coast cities like Naples, Ft. Myers, and Tampa. Nearly 7 million people have fled the path of the storm, the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, photos of complete devastation continue to pour in from the Caribbean. On the island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, forests were flattened and twisted into mangled messes. In the Bahamas, Irma’s offshore winds were so strong on one beach that they pushed the ocean completely out of sight. Barbuda was so ravaged that the normally lush island appeared brown from space.

And if you’re wondering, climate change is a huge part of the story here. Since 2010, seas have risen in Florida at one of the fastest rates anywhere in the world.

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Hurricane Irma makes landfall in Florida

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Obama designates world’s largest protected area — it’s underwater

Obama designates world’s largest protected area — it’s underwater

By on Aug 26, 2016Share

President Obama, who marked the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service by designating a whole new land monument in Maine, is giving oceans some love, too.

On Friday, he expanded the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, also known as Papahānaumokuākea, to 582,578 square miles. At nearly three-and-a-half times the size of California, the monument is now the world’s largest protected area.

Papahānaumokuākea encompasses 10 islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which supports over 7,000 species — a quarter of which are unique to Hawaii.

Native Hawaiians urged for the monument’s expansion back in January and consider the place a “the boundary between Ao, the world of light and the living, and Pō, the world of the gods and spirits from which all life is born and to which ancestors return after death,” according to the White House.

Protecting this area means it will be closed for the extraction of oil, gas, minerals, and other energy development. You can learn more about it from this video by Pew:

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Obama designates world’s largest protected area — it’s underwater

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Drought is a life-or-death situation for low-lying islands

Drought is a life-or-death situation for low-lying islands

By on May 7, 2016

Cross-posted from

Climate CentralShare

From the vantage point of a boat bobbing on the deep blue waters of Majuro Lagoon, the encircling shores of the Pacific coral atoll are normally verdant with tropical vegetation. But on a recent sailing excursion with friends, Angela Saunders was struck by how brown and withered the island looked.

“The vibrant color of all the trees was gone,” Saunders, a Majuro-based program manager with the International Organization for Migration, wrote in an email. “It was like someone put dampers on the world.”

Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, is an atoll in the Pacific Ocean with a land area of about four square miles. It is home to about 30,000 people.

Christopher Michel

It is a scene that is playing out across the hundreds of low-lying islands and atolls scattered across a vast swath of the western Pacific Ocean broadly known as Micronesia. One of the strongest El Niños on record has curtailed the rains that are the lifeblood of most of the region’s communities and ushered in an extreme drought that has left inhabitants in a precarious situation.

Wells have become brackish or run dry; the rain barrels that perch on the corners of houses have little or no rainwater left in them. Water rationing is limited to a couple of hours a day in some of the worst-hit communities, while expensive reverse-osmosis machines have been shipped out to the most far-flung atolls to make the seawater drinkable. Staple foods like breadfruit and bananas have shriveled on the trees, inedible.

Worries over acute food and water shortages, as well as the spread of disease, have prompted several of the affected island nations to issue disaster declarations in order to receive assistance from the United States and other countries.

“Drought in the U.S. is kind of an inconvenience … but out here it’s a life-or-death kind of situation,” Chip Guard, a meteorologist with the main regional U.S. National Weather Service office in Guam, said.

While El Niño is waning, it will be weeks or months before the rains gradually return to normal levels. Even then, it will take time for crops, rain catchments, and groundwater levels to recover, continuing the strain on locals well into the summer.

“Every day longer the drought lasts, the more you hear about it,” Saunders said. “In the store, on the streets.”

El Niño effects

El Niño tends to dry out the islands of Micronesia because it shifts the main area of storm activity in the tropical Pacific eastward and away from the region, following the commensurate eastward displacement of the pool of warm waters that fuel those storms.

The western- and northern-most islands tend to fall into drought first, following the gradual eastward migration of the rains, and stay in drought longer. Palau, the westernmost island chain in the region, to the southeast of the Philippines, was the first to enter into drought conditions last year. As of an April 28 update from the National Weather Service, it was in an exceptional drought, the highest level. Koror, its most populous state, had its driest October through March on record, as did Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, and Yap State, in the Federated States of Micronesia.

While some places have had spotty showers that have provided sporadic, temporary relief, others have fared worse. In February, Richard Heim, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information, rattled off the rainfall record for Wotje, a hard-hit atoll to the north of Majuro: “Zero, zero, zero, trace, zero, zero … They are getting nothing,” he said.

Although the relationship between El Niño and drought in these islands is well known — which helps governments and aid agencies to forecast and prepare in advance — it is unclear how global warming might alter the El Niño phenomenon in the future.

The effects of climate change are of acute concern to island residents, as rising sea levels already eat away at what little land they have and threaten water supplies as overwashing waves that can make groundwater brackish become more common.

While rainfall is overall expected to increase across Micronesia as the planet warms, according to a 2014 report by an Australian-led project looking at climate change projections in the region, that increase is somewhat uncertain. And it is the variability of rainfall, not average rains, that is the main driver of drought there, Sugata Narsey, one of the coauthors of that report and a climate researcher at Monash University, said.

The main source of variability there is El Niño, he said. Some research has suggested that warming could mean more frequent extreme El Niño events, but the link isn’t yet conclusive.

When drought does occur in the future, it is possible it could last longer because evaporation will also increase with warming, Michael Grose, a climate researcher with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, said. This is one of the ways climate change exacerbated the current drought in California.

Surrounded by water, but none to drink

It is a cruel irony that, though surrounded by the vast expanse of the largest ocean on the planet, the islands and atolls of Micronesia can run out of drinkable water.

Except for some of the larger islands in the region, such as Guam, most don’t have reservoirs to keep water supplies steady and on hand for lean times. (And even those that do have them are seeing well below-normal levels.)

The region of the Pacific Ocean known as Micronesia.

Wikimedia Commons

Instead, most of the region relies on the near-daily rains of the tropics to maintain the groundwater supplies that feed wells and are caught by the green, high-density plastic rain catchments attached to many homes. But a certain minimum threshold of rain — usually about four to eight inches a month — is needed to maintain viable water supplies. Below that level, drought can set in, and quickly.

“The atolls especially are very susceptible to drought,” Guard said, because they are too low-lying to have significant underground aquifers.

For those islands that do have wells, the water inside can quickly become brackish during a drought. As freshwater is extracted, the seawater below it creeps upward, Heim said. One day the well water is drinkable, the next it turns salty. That leaves a tight window for relief agencies to bring water or reverse-osmosis machines to distant atolls a full day’s boat ride from the main islands. These outlying atolls also often lack internet and cellular service, making quick communication a challenge.

“Really a struggle”

When visiting the outer atolls of the Marshall Islands, Saunders, of the IOM, said that as soon as you walk off the plane, “you notice the heat more. There is less shade to sit under and you can really imagine how hard life is for those most affected” by the drought.

The Marshall Islands have been hit particularly hard because virtually all of the nation’s land is low-lying. Of those islands that do have wells, many were too salty to use by early March. Many rain catchments had also run dry by that point.

Dried vegetation on Majuro.Karl Fellenius/University of Hawaii Sea Grant at the College of the Marshall Islands

“Not everyone’s water is totally out, but some are, and everyone is conserving,” Saunders said.

On Majuro, there are 19 water distribution points and a reverse-osmosis machine that generates 25 gallons of potable water a minute and runs 24 hours a day at the College of the Marshall Islands. Island residents have access to tap water for only four hours a week, according to the Marshall Islands Journal. On the outer islands, 32 reverse-osmosis units have been deployed.

“This means that people have to walk to these spots to get water, or if they can, take a car or a pushcart to carry water,” Saunders said.

Each nation has limited resources and it is “really a struggle to respond,” Guard said, which is why aid from the United States and agencies like the Red Cross is critical. The Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau have all declared states of emergency or disaster to enable that aid, and last week, President Obama declared a state of disaster for the Marshall Islands, allowing for FEMA support. The IOM has helped provide reverse-osmosis units, collapsible jerry cans, and soap to residents.

As ground and surface water have dried up, so have key food crops. Staple food sources like taro, breadfruit, banana, and coconut “are for the most part no longer edible,” Guard said in an email. This makes food security a critical issue, especially for outlying islands.

The spread of social diseases like conjunctivitis has also been a concern, as people conserve what little water they have for drinking and cooking at the expense of hygiene. Advisories have also been put out in some locations to boil water in order to prevent the spread of gastro-intestinal illnesses.

Such precautions will likely remain in place for several weeks or months to come, because while El Niño is petering out, rains are expected to stay below normal through the late spring and early summer. But gradually, El Niño’s grip will weaken, and the rains will slowly return from south to north, east to west, reversing their disappearance of several months ago.

But even when the rains do return, it will take time for catchments, groundwater and crops to recover. And that return is not without its own problems — the mosquitoes that spread diseases like dengue fever and Zika virus tend to be more widespread after a major drought, Guard said.

These hardships are something that the people of the region are accustomed to, though, and they have pulled through similarly deep droughts in the recent past.

“The Marshallese are extremely resilient people — that is how they have survived for thousands of years on these small islands,” Saunders said. “They cope, they manage, but it is not easy.”

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This Pacific island has so much plastic pollution it might become a Superfund site

This Pacific island has so much plastic pollution it might become a Superfund site

Forest and Kim Starr

There’s so much plastic crap floating in the Pacific Ocean and washing up on shorelines that one atoll in the midst of the mess could be declared a Superfund site.

Tern Island is the largest island in the French Frigate Shoals, a coral archipelago 550 miles northwest of Honolulu, part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Replete with lagoons, wildlife, and alluring white sands, the island could be a paradise on Earth. But it’s not. Plastic pollution there is so bad that a year ago the Center for Biological Diversity asked the feds to consider adding Tern Island and the rest of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, plus a part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that’s in federal waters, to its Superfund list — a list of the nation’s most polluted places. From the petition [PDF]:

The reefs and shores of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are littered with hundreds of thousands of pounds of plastic garbage. Derelict fishing gear and debris entangles innumerable fish, sea birds, and marine mammals, often resulting in injury and death. Plastic pollution harms wildlife via entanglement, ingestion, and toxic contamination, causes substantial economic impacts, and is a principal threat to the quality of the environment.

A Superfund designation would help mobilize federal efforts to clean up the area. But it would be unprecedented — out of the hundreds of sites on the Superfund list, none was put there because of plastic pollution. “It’s not really common for people to make petitions like this,” an EPA spokesman said after the petition was filed.

But after giving the unusual request some consideration, the feds are on board with a preliminary study that will help decide whether such a listing is warranted.

Well, they’re kind of on board.

The EPA and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service don’t plan to study the whole region as requested, but they have committed to assessing whether Tern Island, which at 25 acres is the area’s biggest island, should be added to the Superfund list. From Honolulu Civil Beat:

[W]hat has distinguished Tern Island from the other islands, and piqued the EPA’s interest, is that the island’s monk seals are showing elevated levels of PCB’s. The toxic, cancer-causing chemicals may be entering the marine food chain through tiny plastics, said Dean Higuchi, a spokesman for the EPA. …

The environmental study will focus on whether toxic substances are entering the marine food chain through micro-plastics and potentially accumulating at increasing levels, as well as the general effects of micro-plastics on marine creatures and wildlife.

The EPA is also concerned about old landfill sites with buried electrical equipment on the island, which may be releasing PCBs and other hazardous contaminants. Tern Island was the site of a U.S. Naval Station during World War II. 

The federal study could ultimately affect an area larger than the 25-acre island. Improving the government’s understanding of micro-plastics in the environment could lead to more stringent controls on pollution from storm-water drains and water-treatment plants.


Source
Plastic Debris Could Make Remote Pacific Island a Superfund Site, Honolulu Civil Beat

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: johnupton@gmail.com.

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Obama creates five new national monuments

Obama creates five new national monuments

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/ Mariia SatsMonumental.

President Barack Obama doesn’t just think the San Juan Islands are awesome. He thinks they are monumentally awesome.

Obama today will announce the designation of five new national monuments, including nearly 1,000 acres on the San Juan archipelago off the coast of Washington state.

That will more than double his monument-designating tally under the 1906 Antiquities Act to a total of nine.

From The Seattle Times:

The lands that islanders had sought to preserve are already federally owned and overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. While there were no apparent plans for the government to sell or develop the properties, the monument designation offers virtual certainty they will remain protected in perpetuity.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, credited “years of persistence” by environmental and business leaders who built a coalition to campaign for the monument.

A national monument is a lot like a national park, except that the president can designate one without the approval of Congress. Other national monuments include the Statue of Liberty in New York City and the Muir Woods north of San Francisco. There are about 100 in all.

Here are the national monuments being protected today, from USA Today:

The San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington state
First State National Monument in Delaware
The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico
Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio
A monument commemorating Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railway in Maryland

Having gained lots of experience handing public land over to energy companies to drill and pollute, Obama today offers an overdue nod to wilderness and American history.

John Upton is a science aficionado and green news junkie who

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