Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Swimmer crossing Red Sea to fight climate change

Lewis Pugh he swims into Shakespeare Beach to complete his “Long Swim” from Land’s End to Dover, England, Wednesday Aug. 29, 2018. The Channel Swimming Association says endurance athlete Lewis Pugh completed on Wednesday his 330-mile (530-kilometer) swim along the length of the English Channel from Land’s End to Dover _ the first swimmer to do so. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP)

A British-South African endurance athlete is attempting to complete the world’s first swim across the Red Sea in a call for action ahead of a major global climate summit.  

As he attempts to swim the 100-mile distance over two weeks, Lewis Pugh told the BBC he wants leaders to put their “heads in the water to see what we risk losing if we don’t take urgent action.”  

The summit in question is the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP-27), slated to take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November.  

Pugh — whose journey began a few days ago — will encounter warm sea temperatures, very salty water and hours of exposure to the sun as he completes about 6 miles daily, according to the BBC.  

The swimmer departed from Saudi Arabia and is heading through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world — en route to the Suez Canal and eventually making landfall in Hurghada, Egypt, the BBC reported.  

Pugh, a U.N. Patron of the Oceans, is calling upon governments to significantly cut their greenhouse gas emissions and to ensure that 30 percent of the world’s oceans are protected. 

“I’ve swum in coral reefs that are so incredibly beautiful and biodiverse,” Pugh told the BBC.  

“There’s fish of every single color and description,” he continued. “But then I’ve come back a few years later and there’s very little left there.” 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. I’m Sharon Udasin. Send tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll explore how New England might face rolling blackouts this winter, followed by a look at why faster, wetter hurricanes will likely pummel the U.S. Atlantic Coast.

Plus: How future flood events could impact global food security.  

New England braces for rolling winter blackouts

New England power companies are preparing for possible strain on the grid this winter as surging gas demands in Europe threaten to decrease supplies at home, The Wall Street Journal reported.  

Why New England? This region is dependent on natural gas imports to overcome winter supply gaps, according to the Journal.  

  • Cold spells in the Northeast could decrease the amount of gas available to produce electricity, as more of the resource is dedicated to heating homes. 
  • Meanwhile, New England will be competing with European nations for shipments of liquefied natural gas, after Russia halted most pipeline gas to the continent.  

Rolling blackouts could occur: If the grid experiences enough strain, grid operator ISO New England has warned that there may be rolling blackouts to maintain a stable electricity supply, the Journal reported.  

  • Power providers could have to pay several times more than they did last year for gas deliveries if needs become urgent.  
  • Most producers in New England obtain just a portion of their gas through fixed-price agreements, relying instead on the spot market.  
  • Providers are also limited in their capabilities to store fuel on site.  

Potential for sticker shock: “Anybody who is depending on the spot market for their natural-gas supply is probably going to have a pretty significant sticker shock,” Tanya Bodell, a partner at consulting firm StoneTurn and adviser to New England energy firms, told the Journal.  

Conservation calls could come: New England ISO has said that the grid can likely withstand a mild-to-moderate winter without many changes, according to the Journal. 

But sustained periods of severe cold could lead to conservation calls like those issued in California during September’s heat wave, the Journal reported. 

Crossing fingers: Concerns about the winter are great enough that last month, five commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made a rare visit to New England to assess the situation, the Boston Globe reported.  

“We’re going into this winter basically crossing our fingers and hoping,” commissioner James Danly said at the time, per the Globe. 

Dangerous dependence: In addition to its role as the primary source for home heating in New England, natural gas is also used to produce more than half of the region’s electricity, according to the Globe. 

  • “The underlying problem is that we’re overly dependent on a single fuel,” Rebecca Tepper, chief of the energy and environment bureau at the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, told the Globe.  
  • “We’re overly dependent on natural gas and the entire region is at risk any time we have any disruption on that system,” she added. 

Scientists say faster, wetter hurricanes on the way

The U.S. Atlantic Coast is becoming a hotbed for rapidly intensifying hurricanes, as climate change fuels wetter and more severe storm systems, a new study has found. 

Suddenly severe: A warmer world will likely beget hurricanes that gain strength faster and exacerbate the risk of flooding along the Atlantic Coast, according to the study, published on Monday in Geophysical Research Letters.  

Hurricane Ian’s recent crash-landing in Florida was among the strongest storms to arrive and is a testament to how hurricanes can suddenly turn severe, the researchers observed. 

Storms are strengthening: The rates at which hurricanes have strengthened near the Atlantic Coast have surged since 1979, according to the study.   

  • This trend that is poised to continue in a future marked by continued fossil fuel dependence.  
  • “And this isn’t specific only to the Atlantic,” Karthik Balaguru, a climate scientist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said in a statement.  
  • “It’s happening in several prominent coastal regions across the world,” Balaguru added.  

A perilous mix of conditions: Balaguru and his colleagues said they have identified a unique coastal phenomenon that cause a specific mix of environmental conditions has been driving such hurricane behavior.  

  • Supercharged by conditions like a warmer sea surface or increased atmospheric humidity, hurricanes can cross multiple categories in a short amount of time.  
  • Because these storms build up at such high speed, they can often elude standard forecasting tools.  

A widening gap: While land temperatures are generally warmer than those of the sea, greenhouse gas emissions are widening that difference, the authors noted.  

  • Because drier land is unable to evaporate as much water, it can’t eliminate the extra heat trapped by greenhouse gasses as quickly as the ocean can. 
  • Hurricanes — often dubbed “heat engines” — suck up warm, moist air and convert its energy into damaging winds.  

Favorable for hurricanes: “The nearshore environment has absolutely become more favorable for hurricanes near the Atlantic Coast,” Balaguru said.  

“And that’s very consistent with the rising hurricane intensification we’ve observed in the region,” he added. 

To learn more details about these findings, please click here for the full story.   

Investigating the effects of floods on food security

Flooding could affect food security for more than 5.6 million people across multiple African nations, a new study has found. 

While these effects are usually negative, the researchers also identified certain positive effects — which the authors warned are not necessarily guaranteed.  

Addressing an urgent need: Alongside record rainfall comes an urgent need to assess the influence of these conditions on food needs, according to the study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

“Floods can impact food security both immediately and in the months after the flood event,” lead author Connor Reed, a former New York University Center for Data Science graduate student, said in a statement.  

Shifting food insecurity: Reed and his colleagues examined flood conditions from 2009 to 2020 in more than a dozen countries across western, eastern and southern Africa. 

  • They explored how key flood characteristics — such as location, duration and extent — shifted food insecurity measures.  
  • The researchers found that during their study period, flood conditions affected the food security status for about 12 percent of people who were already experiencing food insecurity.  

The bad and the good:  While many of the effects led to devastating increases in food insecurity, other more beneficial impacts helped improve insecure conditions.  

  • “In a given year, excess precipitation may immediately lead to floods that destroy crops in a localized area,” study co-author Weston Anderson, a research scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. 
  • But such rainfall can also be “associated with beneficial growing conditions that boost crop production on the country-scale,” Anderson added. 

Proceeding with caution: Despite this apparent benefit, the researchers cautioned against assuming that such positive effects would be a given.  

People’s ability to make the most of increased water availability requires timely intervention efforts, particularly through shifts in government climate services and programs, the authors explained.   

Which areas were influenced most? Among the regions that stood out as “hot spots” for flood impacts were areas along the Niger River in Nigeria, as well as western and central South Sudan and northwestern Malawi, according to the study.  

  • The researchers also found that flooding significantly influences food security in localized ways, as opposed to uniformly across whole countries.  
  • This relationship, they explained, is due to context-specific effects on food production, access and utilization. 

A need for further research: “Flooding has important but complicated impacts on food security at different times and spatial scales,” Sonali Shukla McDermid, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Environmental Studies, said in a statement.  

“Improving knowledge of where, when, and to what extent floods affect food security is crucial, especially for decision-makers across flood-prone rural areas that contribute to regional and global food supplies,” McDermid added.  

To read the full story, please click here.  

Maritime Monday

German spy chiefs warn against Chinese investment in key port, scientists tout the benefits of algae-based aquaculture and ocean freight rates fall — but shoppers won’t see gains.  

China could use Hamburg port for political gains: Germany spy chiefs 

  • German intelligence chiefs have warned that China could use a potential stake in the country’s critical infrastructure — the Hamburg port — for political gains, Reuters reported. Berlin’s Greens-run economy ministry hopes to veto Chinese firm Cosco’s bid to invest in the country’s most important port, while the Social Democrat-led chancellery is more in favor, according to Reuters.  

Scaling up an algae-based food supply 

  • Down-shifting the focus of marine aquaculture from fish to algae could help solve a surging demand for nutrition while reducing the existing food system’s ecological footprint, according to a new study in PLOS Biology. Micro-algae can provide high amounts of protein, essential amino acids, vitamins and antioxidants, without requiring arable land and freshwater, the authors said in a statement.  

Ocean freight rates fall, but prices remain high 

  • While the cost of sending freight containers across the Pacific Ocean has dropped from pandemic-era highs, retailers aren’t reducing prices on consumer goods, The Washington Post reported. Shoppers won’t likely see discounts this season, due to factors like preemptive holiday buying and gas and labor costs, according to the Post. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.


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