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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Hurricane Sandy brought more sea water onto shorelines than I’d ever witnessed before and many communities near where I live are now being required to raise their homes up. What is the prognosis for sea level rise in the years immediately ahead? -- Scott P., Fairfield, CT

Since sea level measurements were first recorded, in 1870, global averages have risen almost eight inches. The annual rate of rise has been 0.13 inches over the past 20 years, which is close to twice the average from the previous 80 years. Future estimates for sea levels vary according to region but most Earth scientists agree that sea levels are expected to rise at a greater pace than during the last 50 years.

Predicting the amount of rise is an inexact science and depends on many factors including climate change and ice sheet flows. The U.S. National Research Council predicts a possible sea level rise of between 22 and 29 inches over the 21st century in the U.S. Sea levels are anticipated to continue rising for centuries.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), land elevation changes also have a large impact on the effects of rising water levels. Subsidence (sinking) or uplift (rising) of the land can help determine the relative sea level rise. The EPA’s relative sea level estimates, assuming a two foot global sea level rise by 2100, are 2.3 feet at New York City, 2.9 feet at Hampton Roads, Virginia, 3.5 feet at Galveston, Texas and one foot at Neah Bay in Washington state.

The main factors contributing to sea level rise are thermal expansion (created by an increase in ocean water temperatures) and the melting of ice caps and glaciers. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, combined with natural activities, have contributed to the rise of the earth’s surface temperature over the past century. According to National Geographic, about 80 percent of this additional heat is absorbed by the oceans. The above factors are well studied, but more research is still being done on how climate change will impact large ice sheets in areas such as Greenland and the Antarctic. An extra foot of sea level rise could be a possibility depending on what happens with these larger ice sheets.

Even small changes in sea levels can have adverse effects on coastal areas. Erosion, flooding of wetlands, aquifer and agricultural soil contamination and habitat loss for fish, birds and plants are all problems resulting from rising sea levels. Also, higher sea levels usually mean more destructive weather events as storm surges get bigger and more powerful and devastate everything in their way. Coastal communities will suffer the most, as flooding from rising water levels will force millions of people out of their homes.

As for what can be done, reducing our collective carbon footprint is no doubt the first and most important step. Individuals should drive and fly less, walk and bicycle more and take advantage of public transit. But sweeping policy changes will have the most impact: A recent commitment by the Obama White House to require coal-burning power plants and other large industrial operations to minimize greenhouse gas emissions should finally help get the United States started on the right track, but many wonder if such moves represent too little too late.

CONTACTS: U.S. National Research Council, www.nationalacademies.org/nrc; EPA Climate Change Future, www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/future.html; National Geographic Sea Level Rise, ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/critical-issues-sea-level-rise/.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Three regions in California recently implemented transportation plans as part of a statewide strategy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Can you explain? -- Bill Oakes, Reno, NV

Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about global warming even as Washington politicians continue to debate whether or not to mandate emissions cutbacks. In lieu of federal action, some states and municipalities are taking action on their own to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Not surprisingly, California leads the pack, having passed the 2008 Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law (SB 375), which calls on each of 18 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to prepare a “sustainable communities strategy” to show how it plans to meet previously established greenhouse gas reduction targets through integrated land use, housing and transportation planning. Over the past year, three regions—San Diego, Sacramento and Southern California—formally adopted transportation plans specifically designed to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

“All three regions have found that most people want to live closer to jobs and retail, and yearn for ways to live without spending so much time driving,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has been tracking California’s progress on sustainability. “These regions are planning communities that reflect these preferences while also reducing harmful air pollution, creating jobs and saving people money.” NRDC adds that the sustainable community strategies “lay the foundation for smarter, more efficient growth and healthier communities, each of them offering lessons for other regions to follow.”

Under the terms of SB 375, each of the MPOs crafted plans based on local priorities, needs and resources, while adhering to strict statewide emissions reduction goals. San Diego’s 2050 Regional Transportation Plan was the first of its kind in the country when implemented last year. It calls for investing $214 billion in various local, state and federal transportation initiatives around San Diego over the next four decades.

“The largest proportion of the funds will go toward transit, which will receive 36 percent of the funds in the first 10 years, with 34 percent going to highway improvements (largely for the addition of high occupancy vehicle lanes to existing freeway corridors) and 21 percent to local roads and streets,” reports the San Diego Association of Governments, one of the agencies that helped design the plan. “The percentage dedicated to transit will grow each decade, up to 44 percent from 2021 to 2030, 47 percent in the third decade, and 57 percent in the last decade of the plan.”

Most environmental leaders view SB 375 as a step in the right direction, though others worry that it doesn’t go far enough. “The plan will worsen health risks in communities that already suffer from disproportionate levels of pollution,” reports the California-based Environmental Health Coalition (EHC). EHC is concerned about the health of low-income communities of color and feels that the plan allocates too much funding toward highway expansion while deferring investment in public transit for too long.


Meanwhile, 15 more plans will come to light soon across California, giving the rest of the nation that many more models for planning responsibly for a warmer, less environmentally secure future.


CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org; EHC, www.environmentalhealth.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is there a link between the recent spread of mosquito-borne diseases around the world and environmental pollution? -- Meg Ross, Lantana, FL

If by pollution you mean greenhouse gas emissions, then definitely yes. According to Maria Diuk-Wasser at the Yale School of Public Health, the onset of human-induced global warming is likely to increase the infection rates of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus by creating more mosquito-friendly habitats.

“The direct effects of temperature increase are an increase in immature mosquito development, virus development and mosquito biting rates, which increase contact rates (biting) with humans,” she reports.

To wit, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a record number of West Nile virus infections in the continental U.S. in 2012 with some 5,674 documented cases including 286 deaths. The virus uses insects as hosts where they reproduce and then are transmitted to humans via mosquito bites; it can also be transmitted via blood transfusions, organ transplants and breast feeding.

While it’s still far less common, U.S. cases of mosquito-borne dengue fever—also known as “breakbone fever” for the feeling it gives its victims—rose by 70 percent in 2012 as compared with 2011. The CDC reports 357 cases of dengue fever in the continental U.S. in 2012, up from 251 in 2011. The majority, 104, was in Florida, but New York had 64 and California 35. Most of the infections were imported on people travelling to the U.S.Puerto Rico played host to 4,450 dengue fever cases in 2012, up from only 1,507 in 2011. But some of the cases in Florida likely came from mosquito bites there. The virus behind dengue fever thrives in tropical and sub-tropical environments. The increased warming predicted for the southern U.S. along with increased flooding means dengue fever will no doubt be spreading north on the backs of mosquitoes into U.S. states that never thought they would have to deal with such exotic outbreaks.

West Nile and dengue fever aren’t the only mosquito-borne diseases on U.S. public health officials’ radar. Chikungunya, which hitches a ride on the ever expanding Asian tiger mosquito and can cause high fever, fatigue, headache, nausea, muscle and joint pain, and a nasty rash in humans, comes from tropical Africa and Asia. But cases have started appearing in Western Europe in recent years and are expected to make it to the U.S. East Coast at anytime. Likewise, Rift Valley fever, which brings with it fever, muscle pain, dizziness, vision loss and even encephalitis, was limited to Kenya only a decade ago but today has spread across the entire African continent and is expected to make an appearance in Europe and the U.S. soon.

While researchers are hard at work to find vaccines against these diseases, concerned Americans can take some basic precautions to minimize their chances of getting mosquito bites. Keep screens on all the windows and doors in the house that can open. Outside, wear long pants and long sleeved shirts when possible and cover up with an insect repellent—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says only those formulations containing the chemical DEET have been proven effective but there are plenty of all natural alternatives out there. In the meantime, our best defense against these diseases may be keeping our carbon footprints down, as the less global warming we cause, the less we’ll have to deal with an onslaught of tropical mosquito-borne diseases.

CONTACTS: Maria Ana Diuk-Wasser PhD, publichealth.yale.edu/people/maria_diuk-3.profile; CDC Mosquito-Borne Diseases, www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/list_mosquitoborne.htm.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


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