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Highlights from the Week's News

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Oil Giants May Have to Pay for Climate Damage

May 12, 2024

Vermont Bill Would Make Companies Pay for Climate Damage

Vermont is on the verge of becoming the first state in the nation to enact a law forcing large fossil fuel companies to pay for damages caused by climate change. Last week, the state’s house of representatives passed the bill overwhelmingly, as had the senate earlier. The measure goes back to the senate for review and then to Governor Phil Scott, a Republican, whose pledge to veto it will likely be overridden.

A helicopter from the Vermont National Guard, flies over the Capital of Vermont in Montpellier, Vermont, July 11, 2023. This unit's mission was to survey heavy rain damage and report if there were stranded people that needed rescuing due to the storm that caused flooding throughout the state.  |  Credit: Senior Master Sgt. Michael Davis/U.S. Air National Guard

Vermont’s law is fashioned on the federal government’s Superfund program, which makes companies that pollute and contaminate the environment pay for cleanup. Massachusetts, California, Maryland, and New York are considering similar legislation. The companies can be held accountable because of a new field of climate modeling called attribution science, which makes it possible to determine how likely an extreme event like flooding or a heat wave would have been without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Last summer, Vermont suffered what the National Weather Service named the “Great Vermont Flood,” after nine inches of rain fell in 48 hours, causing more than $1 billion in damage. Vermont Public Radio reports that many people are still displaced from their homes, and smaller towns are still feeling the financial impacts. Meanwhile, companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell have made record profits recently and continue to expand fossil fuel production.

The governor and some other Republicans say the bill would result in costly litigation and the state would be forced to fight against legions of oil company lawyers.

Pesticide Banned in 1972 Continues to Plague California Coast

Deep-sea fish and sediment off the California coast near Los Angeles are contaminated with chemicals related to the pesticide DDT. Findings in a new study from UC, San Diego, and San Diego State University show DDT-related chemicals are getting into tiny zooplankton, which are eaten by deep-sea fish and then consumed by other marine life up the food chain. The contaminants had been earlier found in wildlife like dolphins and condors at the top of the food chain, but the source was unknown.

View of Catalina Island from Newport, California  |  Credit: Visavis/Flickr

DDT is harmful to both wildlife and humans and was banned in 1972. The country’s largest manufacturer was based in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Times, one-half million barrels are still thousands of feet underwater near Catalina Island, after being dumped there from the 1940s to the 1980s. Earlier research determined that one DDT manufacturer would hire barges to discharge the waste between the Port of Los Angeles and Catalina. The manufacturer would also dispose of waste slurry into L.A. County sewers, and it would then flow into the ocean off Palos Verdes. That pollution has been linked to health problems in sea lions and bottom-feeding fish.

DDT is not the only problem that plagues the Southern California coast. Barrels of World War II-era military explosives as well as radioactive waste were also discarded there.

The recent study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Blame Departing El Niño for So Many Tornadoes This Spring

If it seems like there have been a lot of tornadoes this spring, you’re not imagining it. More than 100 twisters have touched down across the central and southern U.S., destroying homes and buildings from Oklahoma to Nebraska and Iowa.

Damage to homes, cars, and businesses in Minden, IA following April 2024 tornadoes. On Friday, April 26 multiple tornadoes touched down in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. Hardest hit were the towns of Bennington and Elkhorn, NE in the Omaha Metro area and Minden, IA in western Iowa.  |  Credit: State Farm

What’s unusual beyond the number is that they were farther north than what is typical for late April. According to Jane Houser at The Ohio State University, the weather phenomenon El Niño is likely to blame—or more precisely—its departure. When El Niño weakens, she says its atmospheric waves get wavier, which tends to enhance conditions needed for tornadoes.  

While this winter’s El Niño was one of the five strongest ever recorded, fueling extreme heat, droughts, and floods around the globe, a shift to La Niña conditions, likely by late summer, will bring its own set of risks, including the possibility of drought in the U.S. Southwest as well as a dangerous Atlantic hurricane season, according to Pedro DiNezio at the University of Colorado Boulder.

La Niña produces less wind shear across the Atlantic, which would otherwise stop hurricanes in their tracks. Plus, the arriving La Niña is happening as sea surface temperatures have been setting record highs for over a year, creating a double whammy as warmer waters fuel hurricanes.

Predicting Pollen and How It Affects the Weather

The CDC says over 80 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergies. From spring through to fall, wind-blown pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds can have many of us feeling miserable. Unfortunately, things could get worse with climate change as pollen seasons start earlier and last longer, according to the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Also, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stimulates plants to increase pollen production, and some of those plants are migrating into areas that used to be too cold for them to thrive.

Credit: Hatoriz Kwansiripat/Flickr

With that in mind, researchers from NOAA’s Global Systems Laboratory (GSL) have developed a first-of-its-kind pollen forecast that can predict both the impact of weather on pollen concentrations—and how pollen could influence the weather itself. The forecast is a module in NOAA’s Rapid-Refresh Chemistry weather and atmospheric chemistry prediction system or “RAP-Chem” for short, and it generates a daily 48-hour forecast for ozone, smoke, dust—and pollen.

Unlike other pollen models, RAP-Chem also accounts for the influence those particulates can have on weather. Pollen grains, like other suspended particles, can scatter sunlight, serve as seeds to form clouds, as well as affect temperature, visibility, and precipitation.

The forecast can help people prepare. For example, rain can clean the air and reduce pollen, but cold downdrafts created by thunderstorms can concentrate the particles, making itchy eyes or asthma worse. Humidity, and even lightning, can break up pollen particles into smaller fragments that are easier to inhale.

NOAA researchers are working with the CDC to validate RAP-Chem’s high pollen forecasts to see if it correlates with people seeking allergy relief. If it’s accurate, it could be adopted nationwide, and make pollen…nothing to sneeze at.

Access the data at: https://rapidrefresh.noaa.gov/RAPchem/ Scroll through the fields on the left side of the grid until you see “Surface Coarse Pollen” or “Surface Fine Pollen.” Click the checkmark under “Loop” for a video of the pollen forecast. To see a specific hour, click on the number that shows how far out the prediction will be.