Dear EarthTalk: Why are wildfires on the increase and what can be done to stop them from happening? — Sandy Heffran, Albuquerque, NM
There’s no question that wildfires are on the increase across the American West and other fire-prone regions of the world, and most environmental leaders agree that global warming is largely to blame. In a recent study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers from the University of Utah analyzed a database of large wildfires in the western U.S. between 1984 and 2011 and found a significant increase in the number of large fires and/or the area covered by the blazes. From Nebraska to California, the number of large wildfires increased sevenfold per year over the study period, with the total area burned increasing by 90,000 acres a year on average.
“Wildfire trends in the West are clear: There are more large fires burning now than at any time in the past 40 years and the total area burned each year has also increased,” says Alyson Kenward of the nonprofit Climate Central. “Over the same span, average spring and summer temperatures across 11 Western states have increased by more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, contributing to the higher fire risks.” What worries Kenward and others is that the latest climate model projections show temperatures rising an additional two to four degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades (and as much as eight degrees by 2100).
According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the hotter temperatures we are already experiencing increase fire risks for several reasons. For one, drier, hotter conditions increase evaporation rates and encourage desertification. Also, as snowpacks melt earlier and summer temperatures rise to new heights, the length of the “fire season” is extending. Meanwhile, warming-induced insect infestations and other problems are ravaging many forests, turning once teeming ecosystems into tinderboxes. And the increased frequency of lightning as thunder storms become more severe only exacerbates the situation.
Not everyone agrees that global warming is causing the increase in wildfires. Professor David B. South of Auburn University points the finger at forest management and fire suppression practices over the last century that have allowed “fuels” to build up on forest floors, making the fires that do get started that much harder to quell or contain.
“Policymakers who halt active forest management and kill ‘green’ harvesting jobs in favor of a ‘hands-off’ approach contribute to the buildup of fuels in the forest,” South told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in May 2014. “This eventually increases the risk of catastrophic wildfires,” he said, adding that blaming carbon dioxide emissions for increased fire risk would be “simply unscientific.”
Regardless of who is right, we can all help reduce or prevent wildfires. According to Smokey Bear, the federal government’s mascot for wildfire prevention since the 1940s, those of us living in or visiting fire-prone areas should take extra precautions when burning anything outdoors. The campfire safety page of Smokey Bear’s website outlines how to build and extinguish campfires properly to minimize wildfire risks, and provides lots of other relevant tips on how to stay vigilant. You can also help reduce the risk of wildfire by reducing your carbon footprint (drive and fly less, plant trees) and speaking up for legislation and other actions that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that fuel cell cars aren’t really any greener than conventional gas-powered internal combustion cars? — Michelle Adamo, Portland, OR
A decade ago cars powered by fuel cells seemed like the future of green automotive travel, but many analysts now think otherwise.
These futuristic cars run on hydrogen fuel and emit only heat and water vapor. Their engines mix hydrogen, stored on-board in fuel tanks much like gas tanks, with oxygen in the air to produce electricity that powers the drive train. Environmentalists love the idea of fuel cell cars given their lack of greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on a renewable fuel that can be produced domestically.
Despite these benefits, fuel cell cars have not caught on and skeptics wonder if they ever will. One big hurdle is that creating hydrogen fuel turns out to be highly inefficient compared to other readily available fuels. According to Richard Gilbert, co-author of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil, the creation of hydrogen gas uses about half the energy it creates. Half of this resulting energy then goes to the conversion of hydrogen back into electricity within fuel cells. The result is that “only a quarter of the initially available energy reaches the electric motor.” In fact, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles’ efficiency varies between 18 and 20 percent, while battery electric vehicles have 77-80 percent efficiency.
Not only are fuel cells less efficient than internal combustion engines, their implementation on a wide scale would create enormous infrastructure costs. New infrastructure would be required from “wells to wheels.” Also, fuel cell motors wear out five times faster than internal combustion engines, thereby resulting in a shorter car life and more maintenance. Hydrogen’s small size and extreme reactivity results in brittle metal and engines prone to leaking, which reduces both environmental and practical benefits.
But many still consider fuel cell cars a viable option. “Hydrogen is the key to sustainable transportation because it can be produced in virtually unlimited quantities from renewable resources and because its use is nearly pollution-free,” says the non-profit INFORM. A significant financial commitment to hydrogen research, says the group, could result in a variety of vehicles fueled by hydrogen that perform as well or better than gasoline vehicles, with a fraction of the environmental impact.
INFORM adds that transitioning to hydrogen could be achieved without new federal dollars if we reallocate funds within the national energy program from nuclear and fossil fuels. “The opportunities for innovation and economic growth in hydrogen energy are largely untapped, and many nations are working to establish an early position in this fledgling field.” According to INFORM, Germany and Japan are far ahead of the U.S. in hydrogen development. The group would like to see U.S. policymakers encourage more development of fuel cells so we have options open in a fast-transitioning energy future.
Meanwhile, sales of battery electric and hybrid vehicles continue to soar — rising 228 percent in 2013 alone. There are currently no new fuel cell vehicles for sale at American auto dealers, although Honda has hinted that it could have its FCX fuel cell engine ready for the mass market by 2018.
Dear EarthTalk: Recent news coverage of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 reminded us all again of how much debris, including plastic, is in our oceans. To what extent is this a real problem that threatens ocean or human health? — Margaret Ainsworth, Philadelphia, PA
The so-far in-vain search for Flight 370 has stirred up interest in the growing problem of ocean debris as objects thought to possibly be plane parts have repeatedly turned out to be just floating trash.
“The ocean is like a plastic soup, bulked up with the croutons of these larger items,” Charles Moore, the captain who discovered an ocean trash gyre roughly the size of Texas swirling around in the deep ocean currents between Hawaii and California, told the Associated Press. “It’s like a toilet bowl that swirls but doesn’t flush,” he added.
Moore’s “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is one of five such debris vortexes in the world’s oceans. Last April, searchers for MH370 stumbled onto the eastern edge of one of them in the Indian Ocean, at first mistaking some of the larger bobbing objects for airplane wreckage.
While this floating flotsam may be a time-wasting distraction for MH370 searchers, green leaders are worried about it for other reasons. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), trash and other ocean debris can cause direct harm to wildlife that ingests or gets caught in it and can break or suffocate coral reefs that are key habitat for many of the world’s marine species. Marine debris can also contribute to the movement of harmful invasive species that hitch rides from one body of water to another.
Another issue is that so much marine debris is comprised of plastic, much of which takes hundreds of years to break down and ends up in the digestive systems of everything from whales to plankton, including much of the seafood that ends up on our dinner plates.
The 2011 report, “Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem,” by the California Ocean Science Trust, California Ocean Protection Council and Sea Grant found that plastic debris in the ocean not only leaches some chemical pollutants that were added during manufacture but also absorbs and accumulates others. This includes many persistent organic pollutants (so-called POPs that have been used extensively for things like pest control, crop production and industrial manufacturing) from surrounding seawater and marine sediments. These POPs have been linked to population declines, diseases and behavioral or physical abnormalities in many wildlife species. Researchers are still not sure how these chemicals, as well as others (Bisphenol A, phthalates, phenanthrene, etc.) may affect marine ecosystems in the long run.
In the meantime, we can all play a role in reducing the amount of plastic and other debris that end up in our oceans. “The most effective way to stop plastic pollution in our oceans is to make sure it never reaches the water in the first place,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental non-profit. According to the group, individuals need to take care to recycle and never litter, while manufacturers should reduce packaging and design more of it to be fully recyclable. NRDC and others are also working on the legislative front to try to institutionalize such measures.
Contacts: U.S. EPA Marine Debris Impacts, water.epa.gov/type/oceb/marinedebris/md_impacts.cfm; “Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem,” calost.org/pdf/science-initiatives/marine%20debris/Plastic%20Report_10-4-11.pdf; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.
Dear EarthTalk: Where are some good “eco-travel” destinations right here in the continental U.S. that I can consider for a family vacation? — Janet Devino, Brooklyn, NY
Many of us are looking to green our lifestyles today and this commitment to Mother Earth can also include how and where we travel. And those of us looking to take a vacation that benefits instead of harms the natural environment no longer have to travel to the ends of the Earth to do so. In the so-called “Lower 48,” many resorts and destinations work hard to minimize their impact on the environment.
One example is California’s Costanoa, where guests can use tented bungalows — safari-style canvas tents with hardwood floors, heaters and real beds with high thread-count sheets — as base camps for exploring the surrounding 30,000 acres of state parks and wildlife preserves. Grilling stations for cooking, as well as bathrooms with showers, are scattered around the grounds so guests can take care of worldly concerns. Interested guests should think ahead, because the bungalows book up a year or more in advance.
In Washington State, eco-tourists should check out the Rolling Huts, a series of small mobile cabins designed by modern architect Tom Kundig and situated in a field alongside the rushing Methow River amid one of the nation’s best networks of cross-country ski and mountain biking trails. The “huts” sleep up to four and are heated with wood-burning fireplaces, while the adjacent restaurant Kelly’s serves up local organic fare with panache. If you aren’t lucky enough to score one of the six huts, you can always rough it in the canvas platform tents down a footpath and a world away from the everyday hubbub.
If a more refined form of green is your thing, try San Francisco’s Orchard Garden Hotel, designed from the ground up to qualify for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design status. Among other green touches, the hotel’s guest rooms feature keycard-based energy control system, eco-friendly bath products, and decor utilizing natural woods and fabrics.
Another option is the Rock Harbor Lodge on remote Isle Royale on Michigan’s Lake Superior. Accessible by boat or seaplane only, the lodge offers direct access to the 893 square-mile island wilderness that is America’s least visited national park — where wolves, moose, loons, beaver, fox and other wildlife rule. The lodge rents boats, kayaks and canoes and offers guided fishing and sightseeing tours. Given its northerly location and lack of light pollution, the lodge also serves up free viewing of the Northern Lights.
For another type of domestic eco-travel experience, sign up for a trip with Earthwatch, a nonprofit that sends citizen-scientists on environmental research trips with leading scientists. Some of the group’s upcoming Lower 48 trips include exploring Boston’s urban forest, researching the causes and effects of rising tides in South Carolina and uncovering the mysteries of ancient Colorado.
Of course, there are many other ways to indulge in eco-travel without leaving the continental U.S. A simple Internet search for eco-travel and a specific region will surely yield plenty of worthy options for places to go to get away from that computer screen and interact directly with the natural world.
Contacts: Costanoa, www.costanoa.com; Rolling Huts, www.rollinghuts.com; Orchard Garden Hotel, www.theorchardgardenhotel.com; Rock Harbor Lodge, www.rockharborlodge.com; Earthwatch, www.earthwatch.org.