The BBC has aired drone footage of the devastation in Zhengzhou, a city in central China that has experienced deadly floods this week. At least 33 people have died in Henan province, with 376,000 more displaced by the historic flooding over the past seven days.
The flooding caught international attention this week when at least 12 people were killed in Zhengzhou’s flooded subway. Footage of stranded passengers in chest-deep water went viral in what can only be described as a living nightmare.
Hospitals in Zhengzhou have been evacuated, with about 5,000 saved so far, according to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua. But many more are still waiting for help, as hospitals now lack supplies of food, water, and electricity. Internet is unavailable as well according to local reports.
Zhengzhou is home to the world’s largest iPhone assembly plant, though it’s not clear if the disaster will impact Apple’s supply chain. That’s obviously the least of anyone’s concerns at the moment.
The photos and video are absolutely heartbreaking, including the story of a baby pulled from the aftermath of a mudslide. The baby girl was buried in rubble but was saved by her mother, who was discovered dead on Thursday, according to the BBC.
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These historic floods, where roughly eight months of rain fell in just a 24 hour period, according to the Financial Times, are going to only get worse as humanity struggles with the severe impacts of climate change. The rain of just three days in the province was a “once in a thousand year event,” according to the South China Morning Post.
Deadly floods have been hitting other parts of the world this month as well, with Germany seeing a death toll of at least 117 people from major floods that took the country by surprise.
Aside from climate change and drought, the most famous culprit of California’s wildfires is likely Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which admitted this week that its equipment at least partly sparked the still-raging Dixie Fire, which has now burned over 103,900 acres. Finally, the company has decided to bury 10,000 miles of cable lines: a long-delayed cost-benefit analysis of mitigating climate-related disasters.
The Wall Street Journal reported that PG&E’s equipment has started over 1,500 fires in California from 2014 to 2017 alone—most horrendous was the Camp Fire, for which the company pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and paid out $13.5 billion in a settlement to victims.
10,000 miles represents only about 10 percent of its lines, the AP reports, and PG&E estimates the endeavor to cost between $15 and $30 billion. In the harshest corporate light, it seems like a prudent investment. After the Camp Fire settlement, the company filed for bankruptcy and emerged last year $38 billion in debt.
The project likely won’t get done nearly quickly enough to eliminate (at least a portion of) power line-related hazards. The Post reported that PG&E COO Adam Wright said he expects the company to bury 1,000 miles of line per year, up from its current rate of 70 miles per year.
The company’s existing lines would need a cash injection, anyway, if PG&E were to make them safe. In the Camp Fire case, a grand jury found that the company showed “a callous disregard” for life after failing time and again to follow state protocols, check old lines, and replace shoddy equipment. According to the Washington Post, PG&E CEO Patricia Poppe said in a press conference that “It’s too expensive not to do it. Lives are on the line.”
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In a press release, the company said that burying lines would also reduce power shutoffs necessary under particularly dry high-risk conditions. Shutoffs have affected millions of California residents, forcing hospitals to make dire choices about where to divvy up limited generator power needed for surgery, fridges full of medicine, ventilators, electronic records, etc.
While PG&E’s incessant disaster-causing negligence is glaringly obvious and can be directly mitigated with a chunk of money, other corporations contributing to extreme weather events will be able to get along at a distance. As the NRDC has pointed out, we can blame greenhouse gas emissions (and contingent drought) not only fossil fuel companies but big toilet paper and the food and beverage industry. But investments almost always come after a disaster and PR catastrophe, rather than before it’s too late.
Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez each face a felony count of involuntary manslaughter, as well as seven other felony counts of recklessly starting a fire that caused bodily injury and affected inhabited structures and 22 misdemeanor counts of recklessly causing damage to another’s property. In an announcement of the charges, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said the couple’s pyrotechnic display set off the inferno on Sept. 5, 2020, after which it burned through tens of thousands of acres in the region of Oak Glen and Yucaipa Ridge and San Bernardino National Forest’s San Gorgonio Wilderness Area.
Firefighter Charles Morton, the 14-year veteran who led an elite, interagency hotshot crew, died on Sept. 17 after his position was burned over by the El Dorado Fire. The Associated Press reported at least 13 other people were injured, while five homes burned down, 15 other structures were destroyed, and hundreds of people were evacuated for their own safety. The fire came amid a firestorm that engulfed California following a freak spell of dry lightning in August that taxed resources to the brink.
Cal Fire determined that a “smoke generating pyrotechnic device, used during a gender reveal party” caused the fire to ignite. The flames quickly burned through dry grass. According to CBS, the couple attempted to douse the flames with bottled water and contacted 911. A grand jury reviewed 434 exhibits before issuing an indictment unveiled on Tuesday, CNN reported. The couple is pleading not guilty to all charges.
“You’re obviously dealing with lost lives, you’re dealing with injured lives, and you’re dealing with people’s residences that were burned and their land that was burned,” Anderson told reporters, according to CNN. “That encompasses a lot of, not only emotion, but damage, both financially and psychologically.” He added the fire “had a tremendous impact on the community of San Bernardino” and required the involvement of at least six separate agencies to control.
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Last year was the worst wildfire season in California history, with more than 4.1 million acres of land burned, 31 deaths, and the damage or destruction of over 10,000 buildings. A complicated mix of factors is to blame, including fire suppression policy that has resulted in forests growing denser with brush, increased human encroachment into every part of the state, and climate change, which is worsening drought and making large swathes of the West Coast hotter, drier, and more prone to extreme fire events—in terrifyingly rapid fashion.
Elsewhere across the West, large wildfires are also raging. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire is among the 60-plus large wildfires growing throughout the region as well as hundreds of more blazes across the border in Canada. The fires have sent smoke streaming across the country and otherwise wrought havoc, leading the Forest Service chief to declare this a “national wildfire crisis.” The charges brought in San Bernardino are a reminder that the last thing we need are any more pyrotechnic-themed gender reveals right now.
At least 25 people are dead and seven are missing in central China after a deluge of rain hit the province of Henan on Tuesday, forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate, trapping passengers in subways, and turning city streets into rivers. Officials said that more than a dozen cities in Henan have been hit by the heavy rains, affecting 1.24 million people, and at least 160,000 people across the province have been evacuated.
Videos and firsthand accounts posted to social media show an especially scary scene inside the subway in Zhengzhou, where commuters on the No. 5 subway line were trapped in water reaching up to their necks. Other riders filmed floodwaters rushing past doors. Officials said 500 have been rescued, but at least 12 people have died in the subway and five have been injured.
“I texted my mother, ‘Mom, I don’t think I can make it, I’m scared,’” a post by a person who was trapped in the subway and shared by state media online read. “I was on the brink of breaking down.”
The rain keeps falling in Zhengzhou and across the province—and the crisis keeps unfolding as the government scrambles to help people still in danger. By Wednesday, local media reported that some trains carrying some 10,000 passengers had been trapped in by deluge for more than 40 hours, including one train with more than 700 people aboard that has been stopped outside of the Zhengzhou city limits for two days. Officials said food and water supplies are running out for those still on the public transit system. Hospitals in Zhengzhou, a city of more than 10 million people, are also working to evacuate hundreds of patients as the power is still out and waters are still flooding buildings.
President Xi Jinping said in an appearance on state television Wednesday that the floods had caused “significant loss of life and damage to property” across the province. “Some reservoirs had their dams burst,” Xi said. “The flood control situation is extremely severe.”
While urban flooding is common in China, the rainfall that unleashed these floods was record-setting. The annual rainfall average for Zhengzhou is 25.2 inches (64.1 centimeters), but 24.3 inches (61.7 centimeters) fell in the city between Saturday and Tuesday alone. The level of rain, state meteorologists said, was a “once in a thousand years” event, and the heaviest rainfall in Zhengzhou in 60 years. The heaviest rate of rainfall in the city reached 7.95 inches (20.2 centimeters) per hour over the weekend, beating the previous record of 7.81 inches (19.9 centimeters) set in 1975.
A 2017 study found that China hasn’t seen a change in average precipitation but that “the intensity of heavy rainfall and the area suffering from extreme precipitation events have expanded” since the 1950s. The study looked at the influence of natural climate factors as well as local human ones like urbanization and found that the latter played a greater role in the increase. Climate change has also increased the odds of heavy rainfall in large swaths of the world. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, which makes downpours like the one hitting Zhengzhou more common. A 2018 study found that climate change will make extreme rainfall significantly more likely in Zengzhou.
“Such extreme weather events will likely become more frequent in the future,” Johnny Chan, a professor of atmospheric science at City University of Hong Kong, told Reuters. “What is needed is for governments to develop strategies to adapt to such changes.”
According to Russian officials, more than 2,270 firefighters are taking on 187 active wildfires in Siberia. Heat gripping the region has played a role in making them worse. In June of this year, European Space Agency satellites recorded a jaw-dropping ground temperature of 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) in Yakutia, Eastern Siberia—hot enough to suggest that the area’s permafrost, which contains huge amounts of methane trapped in it, is in very serious trouble.
Areas above the Arctic Circle also saw freak heat in May and it continued into June. Last month, a large portion of central and northeastern Siberia averaged up to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (6.7 degrees Celsius) hotter than normal, according to data from NASA. That has helped give flames the fuel they need to burn the region over.
Millions of people across the U.S. and Canada woke up to smoke-choked air on Tuesday. The source: intense wildfires burning thousands of miles away in western North America. Yes, the western wildfires are now everyone’s problem, proving for the millionth time that nobody will be spared from climate change and that the impacts can be seen with our very eyes (and felt in our very sore throats and clogged sinuses).
Monster blazes ignited in Oregon and British Columbia earlier this month, with more fires exploding in California recently. The result has been a thick layer of smoke over the region. But thanks in part to bizarre and extreme fire behavior, that smoke hasn’t just lingered in the area or near the ground. Instead, fires have burned so intensely that they’ve created their own weather and sent smoke climbing tens of thousands of feet into the air.
That smoke has risen to the height of the jet stream, a fast-flowing rush of air in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and been whisked along like a toxic leaf in a river. A thin streak of it reached as far east as Greenland last week, but the smoke over the eastern half of North America today is on another level thanks to the increasingly out of control fires in the West. Chief among them is the Bootleg Fire, which is ballooning at an alarming rate and that officials have said won’t be contained absent an act of nature in the form of rain or snow. Abnormally fierce fires are also burning in western Ontario and eastern Manitoba, a region normally less fire-prone than the West. All of that is contributed to a taste of the apocalypse on the East Coast.
The telltale signs of smoke were on display across the eastern U.S. on Tuesday morning. The sun rose angry and reddish-orange in locations from Nebraska to New Hampshire. The phenomenon happens because smoke particles absorb blue and other wavelengths of light on the shorter end of the spectrum while letting longer-wave oranges and reds come through. (Dust and other particulate matter can do this, too.) As I write this at 10:30 a.m., the New York sky is blanketed in a dull orange haze with a light hint of end-of-days vibes.
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Air quality alerts are also in place across the Northeast and parts of the Midwest due to the smoke, and the forecast indicates it could get even worse later on Tuesday. In response, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a code orange alert. The National Weather Service air quality statement notes that “means that air pollution concentrations within the region may become unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Among those groups are the elderly, children, and those with respiratory problems, including communities of colors often forced to live in the shadow of highways and other polluting infrastructure. Models show the smoke extending as far south as Texas and as far as east as Canada’s Maritimes so this is hardly just a “Coastal Elites Whine About Smoke” situation.
The climate crisis and the smoke are one and the same. Rising temperatures have locked in drought and made forests more prone to large, destructive fires. (Decades of forest mismanagement have played a role, too.) Those fires have wrought havoc in communities living at the urban-wildland interface, and we’ve seen far too many tragedies in recent years. The costs of those fires has also been astronomical from an economic perspective, with billions in lost property and livelihoods. What the smoke and air quality alerts on the Northeast make clear, though, is that there are hidden costs to the climate crisis right now. And they’ll only get worse unless we act to reduce the risks.
Recent research from Canada seems to show that wildfires can continue to hurt the lungs of firefighters for years after they’ve burnt out. The study found that first responders who combated the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016 were more likely to experience chronic lung ailments like asthma in the years after than the general public, while many also had visible signs of long-term lung damage.
The Fort McMurray wildfire is thought to have begun on May 1, 2016, in Alberta, Canada. Within days, the fire spread out of control and reached the town of Fort McMurray, prompting the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people. By the time the fire was finally extinguished in late August, it had covered 1.5 million acres of land and destroyed over 3,000 buildings, including homes (two deaths from a car crash also occurred during the evacuation). The costs of the fire are estimated to have run almost $8 billion in U.S. dollars, making it the single costliest environmental disaster in Canada’s history (it’s suspected the fire was started by humans).
Researchers at the University of Alberta have been tracking the health of the many firefighters who responded to the wildfire. Their latest study, published in June in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, looked at the lung-related outcomes of 1,234 firefighters, based on their overall medical records as well as follow-up testing of randomly selected individuals with no previously diagnosed lung disease.
Compared to people similarly matched in age, location, and other factors, the McMurray firefighters were five times more likely to be newly diagnosed with asthma in the following three years after the fire, the researchers found. Of the firefighters who underwent testing, 20% had less responsive lungs and noticeable thickening of the bronchial walls (bronchi are the airways that lead straight to the lungs), both signs of asthma or other respiratory conditions. And it was the firefighters with the most reported exposure to the fire, often the very first to arrive, who seemed to be the worst off.
“Those who were dealing with burning organic matter were exposed to a barrage of small particles in the smoke, and the ones with the highest exposure have long-term consequences,” said lead author Nicola Cherry, an occupational health epidemiologist and researcher, in a statement.
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Though this research only concerns the firefighters who took on the McMurray wildfire, other studies have pointed to similar increased risks of lung and even heart damage among those who have fought wildfires, including a higher risk of lung cancer and heart-related death years later. And with wildfires in both the U.S. and Canada becoming more common and fiercer over time, it’s likely that the health impacts of wildland firefighting will only intensify.
There may be ways to mitigate the pulmonary harms caused by these disasters. The researchers note that many of the McMurray firefighters didn’t have access to specialized gear that could have lessened their exposure to the smoke’s pollutants. Cherry and her team are also researching how they can make firefighting even safer, including through the use of more masks or washing the skin post-fire, as well as modified methods of firefighting, such as shorter rotations of different crews to lessen exposure time.
A massive flamingo colony in central Turkey’s Lake Tuz has been devastated by a regional drought over the last two weeks. The severe dry spell turned the UNESCO-protected Lake Tuz (which translates to “Salt Lake”) into a sere, cracked wasteland, with clumps of unevaporated salt and the dead birds being the main evidence a massive water body was only recently there.
Environmentalists said that the drought was due to local irrigation methods and climate change, citing a report by the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion that found water demand significantly outstripping supply. The Turkish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Bekir Pakdemirli told Reuters that about 1,000 birds were thought to have died, but denied that agricultural practices were the problem. Pakdemirli added that the dead birds were young flamingos—flaminglets—that couldn’t yet fly, and so were stuck with water that became increasingly salty until it completely evaporated.
Ordinarily, the lake is a hatching ground for the water birds. More than 12,000 flamingo chicks hatched in Lake Tuz in 2018, according to the Daily Sabah; this year, only 5,000 hatched, according to a local environmentalist who spoke to Reuters. In 2015, Vice reported that agricultural development in the area could spell doom for the lake, a booster for the local economy for its remarkable look and the salt that can be harvested from it. Now, it looks like that reality could be upon us.
The images out of Lake Tuz are a stark departure from everything you know about flamingos. Normally, a riotous cluster of pink birds (known as a “flamboyance”) would cluster on the vast green and blue background. But the recent photos out of Turkey have none of that color. They are just a dull brown-gray; the birds’ desiccated corpses sprawled along the dried-up lake.
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Though the bird carcasses are the same color as the parched Earth, young flamingos are normally that color. Flamingos only take on their iconic pink coloration from their diet, which includes pigmented algae, mollusks, and crustaceans, which in turn color the birds. In Lake Tuz, the algae is the main culprit for colorizing the flamingos; the algae can even turn the whole lake pink (at least when the lake has water).
Even being labeled a protected area doesn’t mean much to climate change, which has made this natural wonder vanish into thin air. The drought comes as other parts of Europe are underwater due to record-setting floods, showing that climate extremes can affect the same continent in equally terrible ways.
The West’s nightmare summer continues to grow worse. The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon is the largest in the U.S. and has now overrun more than 300,000 acres. Yet as the fire rages out of control, more dire news is on the horizon: The Forest Service’s budget and firefighting resources are expected to be tapped out even before the peak of fire season.
The Bootleg Fire began in early July, right after the record heat wave cooked the Northwest to a well-done crisp. The heat dried out vegetation that was already under drought stress, which allowed the fire to spread rapidly. It currently burned an area the size of Los Angeles, and it will almost certainly grow on Monday. “Critical fire weather conditions including gusty southwest winds and low relative humidity are expected Monday afternoon,” according to Inciweb, a federal wildfire database. A red flag warning has been issued by the National Weather Service.
“Gather your fire evacuation kit now,” the agency wrote in the warning, underscoring the danger of more fires starting in the area.
NWS has also issued an air quality alert for areas to the east of the fire, downwind of the smoke. The Bootleg Fire is hardly the only blaze to worry about. The interior of the Pacific Northwest as well as the Northern Rockies are covered in a purple and red bruise of fire and heat warnings.
The region is in the midst of a heat wave—yes, another oner—that’s expected to peak today. Along with triple-digit temperatures, gusty winds and low humidity rile up any of the dozens of large fires across Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. Any new fires that spark in those states are also likely to spread. Oh, and lightning is expected in California’s Sierra Nevadas today, which could ignite other fires as well.
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The climate change era was always going to be a test of our ability to fight fires. Hotter weather allows more fires to ignite and spread, and erratic and dangerous fire behavior has become increasingly common. At the same time, decades of forest mismanagement and fire suppression have left the West choked with fuel.
The early results of battling fires in the age of explosive blazes are a reminder there’s a lot of work to do from a budget and resource perspective as well as reducing the risks of large fires. On Wednesday, Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen sent a letter to staff outlining the dire set of circumstances the main firefighting agency faces. Among the most harrowing passages in the letter is the following (emphasis added):
“We are seeing severe fire behavior that resists control efforts. Further, the seasonal forecast for the entire Western United States remains extremes for the next several months. We expect demand for resources to outpace resource availability, and our workforce remains fatigued and in need of recovery following last year’s record-setting fire season, active hurricane season, and strenous efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In an effort to help ease the strain, Christiansen outlined a plan to allow those with expired firefighting certificates to be reinstated for the summer, provided they pass medical and fitness tests. She also announced all efforts will be made across the agency to “prioritize fire management,” indicating how serious this summer is shaping up to be.
“Both incoming Chief Randy Moore [Biden’s pick to run the agency] and I agree: This shift in direction is necessary at this time to allow us to respond to the enormity of the national wildfire crisis we all face.”
These changes could help stave an all-out firestorm from overruning the West, but the toll it’s taking on firefighters is severe. Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that morale among firefighters is extremely low.
“Every year for the last five years it’s getting worse and worse,” Donovan Lee, a 22-year veteran firefighter who quit last year, told the foundation. “You make more money at McDonald’s.”
Firefighters are currently paid just $13 per hour, which President Joe Biden called “ridiculously low.” He wants to raise it to $15 per hour, which is good, but also have you seen the fires out West lately? Other proposals have called for a $20,000 annual raise. At the state level, California officials have also tried to help ensure incarcerated firefighters are able to pursue job opportunities in the industry after being released. At the same time that the government is gearing up to fight fires, though, it also needs to be gearing up to reduce emissions and prepare forests for the future so the blazes don’t get as bad in the first place.
Boeing’s had a rough go of it lately: After two crashes of its 737 Max jetliners in 2018 and 2019 resulted in a cumulative 346 deaths, the entire line was grounded for months and subsequent investigations showed the manufacturer rushed out the craft with shoddy software and without sufficient oversight from industry-friendly regulators. Now the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ordered unrelated, but urgent, inspections of thousands of Boeing planes.
According to Reuters, the FAA directed all operators of Boeing 737 series aircraft to carry out repeated inspections of cabin altitude pressure switches, which help ensure that planes remain properly pressurized during flight. Failure of the switches (two of which are in each plane for redundancy purposes) could result in the incapacitation of pilots, flight crew, or passengers. The order applies to 2,502 airplanes registered in the U.S. and is likely to impact another 9,315 across the globe. While the FAA does not have legal authority over planes flown exclusively outside the U.S., Bloomberg reported, it’s fairly certain that foreign regulators will issue similar orders or that foreign 737 operators will carry out such inspections even if they’re not legally mandated.
According to Reuters, the inspection order follows reports in September 2020 by one operator that the switches failed on three different 737 models of aircraft, although the FAA didn’t indicate in its order that there were any reports the failures occurred in the middle of a flight. The news agency wrote that after the initial report, Boeing conducted its own investigation and determined there was no issue. But the FAA and Boeing revisited the matter and determined in May 2021 that “the failure rate of both switches is much higher than initially estimated, and therefore does pose a safety issue.” The FAA wrote it “does not yet have sufficient information to determine what has caused this unexpectedly high failure rate,” Reuters added.
The tests must be carried out within 2,000 flight hours of the last test of the switches, before 2,000 flight hours since the issue was ordered, or within 90 days, whichever comes first.
“Safety is our highest priority and we fully support the FAA’s direction, which makes mandatory the inspection interval that we issued to the fleet in June,” Boeing wrote in a statement to news outlets.