Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Planned fires may create more carbon storage

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Today is Thursday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup. 

As fires move across savannahs, grasslands and temperate forests, they perform a paradoxical role: releasing some carbon dioxide while “stabilizing” the remainder in the form of charcoal and clumped-up clods of soil that are more resistant to decomposition, according to a recent study in Nature Geoscience.

We’ve long known that more frequent, controlled burns can help forestall the most destructive wildfires — and that the U.S. Forest Services’ nearly century-old policy of blanket fire suppression has played a big role in the current age of hyper-destructive wildfires.

Amazonian peoples have long used fire to lock carbon into incredibly stable, nutrient-heavy “black earths,” or terra preta, according to Cornell — but in the industrial West, the idea that controlled fire can lead to greater carbon storage is a relatively new one.

“Ecosystems can store huge amounts of carbon when the frequency and intensity of fires is just right,” said lead author Adam Pellegrini. The key is striking a delicate balance between “carbon going into soils from dead plant biomass, and carbon going out of soils from decomposition, erosion, and leaching.”

In our final issue of the year, we’ll finish reviewing key trends from 2021 and how acute weather disasters are reshaping the role of disaster response agencies — and creating a new need for ambitious and holistic land management strategies.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.


New era of disaster requires new response

Water crashes onto a road during a hurricane

The past year brought a cavalcade of natural disasters: both acute ones, like the sudden and brutal floods that hit China and Germany in July or the West Coast’s summer of heat waves and wildfires; and the slow-rolling, implacable chronic ones, like the West’s ongoing megadrought. 

It’s hard to assess how much any particular disaster relates to climate change — not least because every natural disaster requires the failure of human-made systems as well. 

But the overall trend lines are nonetheless clear: A warming world means a world of more powerful and frequent storms, fires and heat waves — not to mention the spreading droughts that will likely drive millions from their homes, according to India’s The Week. 

That means that disaster response bodies, from FEMA to the American Red Cross, are struggling with a shift to something like a permanent emergency mode — which the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has hastened.

Preparing for perennial change: Disaster responders need to shift … into not being so stuck on proving on our lessons learned from past events — but on spending and shifting onto what the potential risks are that we’re going to face in the future,” FEMA chief Deanne Criswell told Equilibrium in October.

That’s both an urgent and a long-term project: “I’m trying to change our emphasis to not just mitigating against historic risks, but taking the time to understand what we think our future risk is going to be —  and begin mitigating against that now because these are the types of projects that take years to put in place,” Criswell said.

Disaster response has a tendency to fight the last war, Criswell said — which is a particular danger in a world of threats that are likely to keep getting worse. 

“So if we’re focusing on putting mitigation projects, only on what we know from the past, and not what we think is going to happen 20, 30 years from now we’re going to be behind that eight ball.”



A chronic condition: “We’ve seen this enormous shift from disasters being an episodic number of acute events on a regular cycle, with a mega event every three to four years,” to major events now “happening every year, multiple times per year,” Trevor Riggen, head of disaster response for the American Red Cross, told Equilibrium.

“And for a lot of communities, disaster has become a chronic condition — like poverty or homelessness,” he added. 

In many places, things are deteriorating: The impact of a natural disaster is a complex equation of the severity of natural onslaught combined with the level of local resilience it smashes against — and “in most communities,” that level of resilience is “getting worse,” Riggen told Equilibrium.

With “inequality, food security, healthcare and education, we have to assume we’re starting from a different starting point on the next disaster,” Riggen added, stressing that in most places, those starting points weren’t improving — and that by the 2030s, emergency managers may be counting on far more limited resources to address far worse crises hitting far more vulnerable populations.

How will they do that? In the case of FEMA, it could involve the organization becoming something like disaster-extension agents, working on a semi-permanent basis to direct federal resources to local governments and civil society organizations who know their communities and their needs far better than outsiders.

Last words: To address the coming instability, “we need those systems to be better intertwined and more interoperable, so they understand how their interdependencies are going to impact each other’s decisions,” Criswell said.


Officials confront West’s water woes

In the more uncertain world that is emerging — a place of chronic drought and acute fire and storm — our systems of landscape and water management are at a crossroads.

These systems, which evolved to meet a climate and social reality that in many places no longer exists, can serve as a force multiplier, worsening the impact of natural disasters — or if reimagined, they can serve as allies in the fight for a more sustainable future.

First words: “The structural element of how the law works [in the U.S. Midwest and West], and the hydrological element of how groundwater works are in conflict,” Burke Griggs of Washburn University told Saul in an external piece for Mongabay. 

Here’s the problem: Our legacy systems, from fire control to Colorado River water allotments, are built around the milder climate — and relatively more powerful and activist federal government — of the 20th Century, as Mongabay reported. 

That means state water boards that err on the side of granting water rights, even for thirsty crops above fast-depleting aquifers like the Ogalalla, Griggs said.

But governments are catching on: Both Kansas and California — two very different states, both plagued by drought — have adopted innovative policies to ratchet down groundwater use, and a wide array of new USDA programs exist to help farmers transition their lands to higher resilience, lower-water management regimes, Mongabay reported.

Earlier this month, California’s State Water Project announced that there would be no supplies released in 2022 for state farms, according to The Conversation — building on the August announcement by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamations that the Colorado River itself was under its first ever water shortage declaration.

That shortage is partially intentional: It’s part of a “last-ditch effort” by Arizona, California and Nevada to replenish the waters of the critical reservoir at Lake Mead, adding 500,000 additional acre-feet of water by 2023 as The Hill reported.

 “By working together we’ve staved off these historic low levels for years, thanks to collaboration and conservation in the Lower Basin. But we need even more action, and we need it now,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Caimlim Touton said in a statement. 



“The Western United States — especially the 40 million people who use the Colorado River — we’re in the bullseye of climate change,” Cynthia Campbell, water resource management advisor for the City of Phoenix told Sharon in a piece for Ensia

“This is not a conceptual conversation anymore. We’re in full-on adaptation,” Campbell added.

What does that adaptation look like? Desalination is one possibility, though as Saul wrote for Mongabay the energy demands, along with the problem of disposing of the resulting toxic brine, can be prohibitive.

Toilet-to-tap: In the absence of large-scale solar-powered desalination, cities are working to negotiate access to new supplies — and to figure out creative ways to reuse water.

In San Diego, that includes ramping up a pilot project of “direct potable reuse” — or as opponents once called it — “toilet to tap,” as Sharon reported for Ensia.

And since that grosses people out, there’s an alternative:  Indirect potable reuse — which puts the wastewater back in an aquifer, then draws drinking water from that — is a key part of Phoenix, Ariz.’s attempt to cut its reliance on the shrinking Colorado, as Ensia reported.

“We’ll probably be the guinea pigs for everyone,” said Campbell

2022 Takeaway: As the climate situation gets worse, expect necessity to make cities like Phoenix hubs of adaptation and innovation.


Thursday Threats 

More impacts of the new era of extreme weather.

Extreme weather is pushing up prices
  • Behind the debate over whether fiscal or monetary policies are driving up prices is one incontrovertible truth: the year’s spate of extreme weather certainly is, by interfering with everything from grain harvests to oil and gas extraction, The Wall Street Journal reportd.
  • From the February Texas winter storm to Brazil’s devastating mixture of drought, heat and freeze, “weather is probably the biggest factor of higher prices,” Craig Turner, a senior commodities broker with StoneX Financial Inc., told the Journal. 
Winter storm cuts off 81 miles of California Interstate 
  • Blinding snow led to the closure of 81 miles of Interstate 80 from near Sacramento to the Nevada state line, as travel became “in some cases, will be outright impossible,” said Andrew Orrison, a meteorologist in College Park, Md., according to the New York Times.
  • The closure this year of interstate highways from extreme weather — also seen in Washington along Interstate 5 during November’s floods, according to KZTV — signals a future of more unreliable interstate transportation and potential supply disruption.


Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. There is no newsletter for tomorrow, but Equilibrium will return on Monday. Have a Happy New Year.

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