The Fires This Time

The Rim Fire in California’s Sierra Nevada burned over a quarter million acres in 2013. Seemed amazing then, now it’s just another day in the woods (and on the tundra). (US Forest Service photo)

The Rim Fire in California’s Sierra Nevada burned over a quarter million acres in 2013. Seemed amazing then, now it’s just another day in the woods (and on the tundra). (US Forest Service photo)

An appalling amount of the Northern Hemisphere is on fire. At the beginning of this month, 314 wildfires were raging in Alaska alone. They have seared 5 million acres so far this year and have torched up to half a million acres in a single day. Meanwhile, to the east in Canada’s Northwest Territory, hundreds of fires were raging in the permafrost zone, having covered over two million acres by the end of June. The forested northern provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan were similarly afflicted — 522 fires in northern Saskatchewan alone by June 30, nearly four times as many as last year in the same period. Continue reading

Pacific Apocalypse: The Great Dying Continues

A passel of starving sea lions, rescued from the beach by volunteers, in a California rehab center. They get a lot of attention because they’re cute. But crabs, oysters and anchovies are dying just as fast.

A passel of starving sea lion pups, rescued from the beach by volunteers, in a California rehab center. They get a lot of attention because they’re cute. But crabs, oysters and anchovies are dying just as fast.

The Pacific Ocean appears to be turning toxic to all life, a prospect with unimaginably dire consequences for humanity. News stories about it are fragmented, and slotted into the “Environment” category, and thus easily ignored by the rich and famous and their news channels. (Breaking News: Donald Trump Running Mate May be Caitlyn Jenner!) In just the latest manifestation of this calamity, what may be the largest bloom of toxic algae ever detected is poisoning sea life from California to British Columbia — with toxin from it detected not far off Alaska. Crab and clam fisheries have been shut down in two states so far, and the so-called red tide is still growing. In Monterey Bay, California, the concentration of domoic acid secreted by the algae is the highest ever recorded. Continue reading

First They Came for the Sardines…

The fish held a meeting, and decided to spread the alarm, but it was too late. They were all dead. (Photo by James Palinsad/Flickr)

The fish held a meeting, and decided to spread the alarm, but it was too late. They were all dead. (Photo by James Palinsad/Flickr)

You see the stories here and there, usually in local West Coast papers and on specialized websites. One has a gross picture of a dissolving starfish, another a heart-tugger of a starving sea lion pup. Then there are the stories that have no pictures  because they are about something that isn’t there, such as sardines and krill. Or something that is happening but cannot be watched, like the slow impassive death of oyster beds. It takes a while for it to begin to dawn on you: Holy Crap! Everything on our Pacific Ocean coast seems to be dying! Continue reading

Engineers Offer to Save World from Engineers

Thank God, it’s an engineer, here to save us from the fire by pouring gasoline on us. (Photo by Sergei Nivens/Shutterstock)

Thank God, it’s an engineer, here to save us from the fire by pouring gasoline on us. (Photo by Sergei Nivens/Shutterstock)

The closer a person or  a society comes to the end of its life, the more attractive magical thinking becomes. Clearly this is not going well, the thought process goes, but I can avoid the inevitable outcome if I 1) pray real hard, or 2) pay enough money to the shaman/priest/doctor, or 3) take lots and lots of Vitamin X while bathed in a strong electromagnetic field, or 4) sacrifice plenty of virgins to a volcano. The more hopeless the situation becomes, the more attractive becomes the idea of a magical, easy solution, and the lust to find one often intensifies until death intervenes. Thus now, in the dotage of our society, we are hearing a rising, insistent chant from the shamans of technology, a promise of an easy fix for the climate that is turning against us: “geoengineer it, geoengineer it.” Continue reading

China and India: Accelerating to the Finish Line

The air in Delhi, shown here in 2011, like the air in Beijing, is barely breathable by humans. Yet these two countries, with their 2.6 billion people, have just begun to burn fossil fuels. (Photo by je poirrier/Flickr)

The air in Delhi, shown here in 2011, like the air in Beijing, is barely breathable by humans. Yet these two countries, with their 2.6 billion people, have just begun to burn fossil fuels. (Photo by je poirrier/Flickr)

Hopium addicts and a few novelists nurture the convenient belief that while the 1.4 billion people of China and the 1.2 billion people of India struggle lustfully to live as luxuriously as do the 300 million people of the United States, they will manage to do so in a manner somehow less wasteful of energy and natural resources, less destructive of the living web of life, than we have done. The belief is convenient because, while there is not a whisker of evidence to suggest it is true, holding it permits the believer to carry on with business as usual. Continue reading

China Hosts Development Celebration. No, Really.

China_Steel_Industries

This Chinese steel factory demonstrates what a boon it is to the Chinese people. And why it must be shut down while the Chinese people have visitors.

Remember when the Marlboro Men, the rugged, cowboy-looking actors hired to glamorize cigarettes, kept dying of lung cancer? Or imagine if they made the overweight Ron White (the Blue Collar Comedy guy) host a TV fitness program while swilling bourbon and puffing on a cigar. Now you have an idea how China feels this week, as it prepares to host the growth-mad Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation organization. It’s hard to glamorize something that’s actually killing you.

Instead of a celebration of unfettered development, a my-project-is-bigger-than-your-project bragfest, a sky-is-the-limit orgy of optimism, the attendees are going to be strangling on the effects of unfettered development and holding hands with a would-be Marlboro Man of countries who is, in reality, terminal. Most people die when they can no longer breathe; in China, you’re in danger if you do breathe. The air is that bad. Continue reading

Perfect Storm Gathering off America’s West Coast

Sea Storm

A storm gathers over Manhattan Beach, California. But the real threat to the West Coast is from what’s happening in the water, not in the air. (Photo by Neil Kremer/Flickr)

When three or more meteorological disturbances merge, the result is called a “perfect” storm to signify that it is more destructive than the sum of its parts. In the Pacific Ocean off our West Coast, a confluence of dire events is forgathering whose cumulative effect may destroy more life on earth than anything that has occurred in 300 million years. That is not hyperbole, it is the considered opinion of a number of oceanographers who have begun to look at the threats cumulatively, rather than in the confines of one specialty or another. What happened 200 million years ago is called the Great Death of the Permian Age, during which most living things on Earth died.

What is happening today in the eastern Pacific Ocean is thought by some experts to be a runup to just such an event, beginning, as did the Great Death, with the extinction of most life in the ocean. Continue reading

Attack of the Zombie Plants: World War A

Just when you think it's safe to go near the water, you start feeling dizzy. Thanks, algae. (Photo by Dave Shefer/Flickr)

Just when you think it’s safe to go near the water, you start feeling dizzy. Thanks, algae. (Photo by Dave Shefer/Flickr)

Along most of its coastline, in its bays and estuaries, and in many of its rivers and lakes, America is under mounting attack by another enemy of its own making — toxic green algae. It’s like a bad horror movie, with the slime sprawling across vast reaches of water (so much that it’s visible from space), eventually covering beaches and burping a neurotoxin that is deadly to earthlings. As a movie, it wouldn’t get past a concept lunch in Hollywood today (Hey, Arnie! It’s been done, okay?) but it is raising real dread — not the fake movie kind — from California to Florida, from the coast of Washington to the coast of Ohio. Yes, Ohio. Continue reading

China: Falling Faster

Sunset in Shanghai. Except that’s not the horizon the sun is sinking behind, it’s the pollution layer. (Photo By Suicup via Wikimedia Commons)

Sunset in Shanghai. Except that’s not the horizon the sun is sinking behind, it’s the pollution layer. (Photo By Suicup via Wikimedia Commons)

It is increasingly likely that our ailing Western industrialized economy will be preceded in collapse by that of China, whose degradation of the natural web of life has been far faster and more profound than ours. Every six months or so I check on China’s disintegration, plowing through metric tons of punditry on its Miracle-Grow GDP, its rising military power, its imperial ambitions — to come upon a patient in ICU, nearly comatose. If America is Dead Man Walking with respect to food, water, air and soil quality, China is The Walking Dead. [Really? I have to explain that? One is about a man about to die, the other about a zombie, already dead.] Continue reading

West Coast Marine Ecosystem May Be Crashing

Now you see them, now you don't. And when you don't see sardines, the whole web of ocean life falters. (Photo by Juuyoh Tanaka/Flickr)

Now you see them, now you don’t. And when you don’t see sardines, the whole web of ocean life falters. (Photo by Juuyoh Tanaka/Flickr)

This is not a drill. A profound crash in the web of marine life in West Coast waters is under way, and may have gone on for two years already. Current observations that are setting biologists’ hair on fire include:

  • the sardine population from California to Canada is vanishing — the worst crash in generations;
  • starving sea lion and seal pups are washing up on California beaches in unprecedented numbers for the second straight year;
  • brown pelicans in the same area are showing signs of starvation and have not raised any chicks for four years;
  • a massive bloom of toxic algae in Monterey Bay is poisoning sea lions, fish and shellfish, and poses a threat to human health.

Continue reading