Highlights from the Week's News

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A New Twist in the Climate Change Story

April 09, 2023

Colorado River Reservoir Outlook Is Good for Now, but Drought Persists

The West saw heavy levels of precipitation this past winter in many areas, and that’s good news for water levels in Lake Mead on the Colorado River, the country’s largest reservoir. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, by the end of March, the lake has risen about three feet above projections and is about five feet higher than its record low last July.

Reflection Canyon, Lake Powell | Credit: Jay Huang/Creative Commons

The National Weather Service said that during the snowmelt runoff season, Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir on the river, is forecast to get more than 170 percent of the annual average amount of water since 1993. Currently, Lake Powell is at about 23 percent capacity and Lake Mead is at 28 percent.

The recent snow and rain will help to keep generators in dams turning for now on the Colorado River.  However, those amounts of precipitation would have to continue for years to solve the decades-long drought in the Southwest and bring lasting relief to the 40 million who depend on the river. According to the Arizona Republic, to refill only Lake Powell, two years like this past one would be needed, but that assumes no water would be taken from it by farmers or others downstream. Brad Udall, of Colorado State University Colorado Water Center, told the Colorado Sun that it would take something like six years in a row similar to this year to refill the reservoirs, which he said we’re unlikely to ever see.

In related news, last week the Biden administration said it will use nearly $350 million to enhance tribal water resources and to fund conservation in the Colorado River Basin. More than two-thirds of that amount—$233 million—will go to the Gila River Indian Community to compensate for not using some of its Colorado River water rights.

The Gila River Indian Community will also receive funding for a water pipeline project that will transport reclaimed water almost 20 miles from the tribe’s reservation to an irrigation facility. Money will also be used to cover some canals in the community with solar panels that will reduce evaporation and provide electricity. The Associated Press reports that the federal government has promised to spend about $4 billion to help relieve the long-term drought in the Colorado River Basin.

Storing Water in Aquifers Can Heat and Cool Buildings

A new study is highlighting the benefits of a method to store renewable energy that can heat and cool homes and buildings when wind turbines aren’t spinning and the sun isn’t shining. It’s called aquifer thermal energy storage, or ATES, for short. 

Aquifer thermal energy storage (ATES) uses naturally occurring underground water to store energy that can be used to heat and cool buildings. | Credit: Jenny Nuss/Berkeley Lab

Researchers in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab describe ATES as a delightfully simple concept. A system would pump water up from existing underground aquifers, warm it using excess energy from solar or wind, or allow it to heat at the surface during the summer. Then, it’s pumped back down into a shallow aquifer where it will stay fairly hot because it is well insulated underground. In winter months, the water is pulled up and is hotter than the ambient air and can be pumped through buildings for heating. The reverse could also work to cool buildings by chilliging water at the surface and pumping it back underground to store until needed in hot months.  

The method, while currently costlier than existing energy technologies, could reduce the use of natural gas and electricity in the building sector by 40 percent in the U.S. and could also help prevent blackouts caused by high demand, even during extreme weather events. Currently, heating and cooling homes consumes about 12 percent of the total global energy.

ATES is beyond the concept stage and currently operating in the Netherlands. The study was published in the journal Applied Energy.

Tornado Alley Appears to Be Shifting East

In the last few weeks, the U.S. has endured a series of deadly tornadoes that left homes and businesses destroyed and more than 60 people dead. That number is close to the annual average of 71 deaths despite it being early in tornado season, according to the National Weather Service.

Credit: Northern Illinois University

It’s been an aggressive start for this year’s tornado season, which is also notable for where the storms occurred—ravaging Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas—far east of the so-called “tornado alley” of the Great Plains that spans from Texas northward through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, and where twisters are more common.

According to new research from Northern Illinois University, that high activity and eastward shift could be the beginning of a trend. As the planet heats up because of climate change, there’s more moisture in the atmosphere and areas where the atmosphere is increasingly unstable—two key ingredients to spawn tornadoes.

To arrive at their conclusion, the team modeled two greenhouse gas concentration scenarios—one considered “intermediate” and the other “pessimistic.” Under both trajectories, the number of annual supercells—an uncommon type of thunderstorm that can spawn violent tornadoes—becomes more frequent and intense, with the mean U.S. supercell activity increasing by seven percent to 15 percent, respectively.

If the models are correct and a growing number of storms shift eastward—particularly into the Ozarks and mid-South—tornadoes have the potential to be more damaging because they’ll likely be in more populated areas. The researchers said the north and central regions of the eastern U.S., where these severe storms are now infrequent, are also projected to experience slight increases.

The study was published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Climate Change Likely to Affect America’s Favorite Pastime

Major League Baseball is in full swing, and for fans hoping their sluggers will successfully swing for the fences, they might just get their wish. A new study says climate change is causing more home runs.

Increase in average number of home runs per year for each American major league ballpark with every one-degree Celsius increase in global average temperature | Credit: Christopher Callahan

Researchers at Dartmouth College analyzed more than 100,000 major league games and 220,000 individual hits to correlate the number of home runs with the occurrence of unseasonably warm temperatures. They found that more than 500 home runs since 2010 can be attributed to higher-than-average temperatures resulting from climate change. That sounds like a lot, but it’s only around one percent. By the end of the century though—if greenhouse gases aren’t batted down—they say homers could rise ten percent.

It’s basic physics. Warmer air is less dense, allowing baseballs to go farther through thinner air that has less resistance. To counteract the effects of climate change, games would need to be played at night or in covered stadiums. That would also make sure teams and fans alike are more comfortable as the planet warms.

The researchers accounted for other factors that could be at play like performance-enhancing drugs, the construction of bats and balls, and the adoption of cameras, launch analytics, and other technology intended to optimize a batter’s power and distance.

While a study that analyzes global warming and America’s favorite pastime might seem less important than warning about consequences like heat waves, droughts, and severe weather, using a cultural reference like baseball might resonate with a wider audience to communicate that, if we don’t step up to the plate and act on climate, we’re going to strike out.

The study was published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

From an H2O Radio ConTributary:

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