Florida Emergency Declared as More Than 100 Wildfires Burn Across the State

The effects of global warming on temperature, precipitation levels, and soil moisture are turning many of our forests into kindling during wildfire season.The Union of Concerned Scientists

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Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency yesterday as a deepening drought and above average temperatures sparked a large wildfire outbreak.

(Florida is now under a state of emergency due to widespread wildfires.)

Over 100 wildfires across the state have now burned 20,000 acres, destroyed 19 homes, and blanketed dense population centers like Orlando with smoke. Moderate to severe drought conditions cover 42 percent of the state. And the result is the worst fire season since 2011 — a record outbreak for Florida which burned over 200,000 acres during the year.

So far for 2017, about 2.5 times the area of land that burns during a usual wildfire season by mid April has already been consumed.  Fires are now burning from one end of Florida to the other:

“From St. George Island in the Panhandle to a wildfire just north of one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions in Orlando, we’re seeing that every area of our state is susceptible to wildfire,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said.

(Moderate to severe drought across 42 percent of Florida is increasing fire risk. The dry season for this region typically lasts until June when Atlantic moisture arrives — bringing with it more frequent thunderstorms. Image source: The U.S. Drought Monitor.)

Florida wildfire season typically runs year-round. However, January to June sees higher fire risk as drier conditions settle in. Summer rains tend to tamp down fires during the hotter months as oceanic and gulf moisture flows increase.

This year, record to near record warm sea surface conditions in the Gulf of Mexico have helped to lock in warmer to much warmer than average temperatures over Florida from January to April. These warmer than normal temperatures have helped to promote drought onset during the dry season.

(As global temperatures have increased, so too have the number of acres burned by wildfires. Image source: US EPA.)

Climate change also plays a role by increasing rates of drought onset, by pushing average temperatures higher, and by generally amplifying wildfire risk. Like many places, Florida has probably been rendered more vulnerable to wildfires by a warming primarily brought on by fossil fuel burning. And it is also a sad irony that the present Governor has outlawed the use of the words climate change in government communications due to a harmful political ideology which has decided to deny the basic science of human-caused warming (Trump has issued similar gag orders). A backward and reactionary policy that renders Florida less able to mitigate and respond to disasters related to human-caused climate change.

Presently, drought conditions are not as intense as those that contributed to the severe 2011 wildfire outbreak. However, forecasters are calling for little rain over the coming week and continued warm to warmer than normal weather. If this weather continues, the present Florida drought is likely to worsen — along with the fire risk.

(UPDATED)

Links:

The U.S. Drought Monitor

Florida Governor Declares State of Emergency as Destructive Wildfires Rage Across State

Polk County Emergency Management

Florida Wildfire State of Emergency

Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Fire Risks?

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Climate Change is Pushing Lake Okeechobee’s Water Levels Higher — And that’s Bad News For Algae Blooms, Flood Risk

More powerful storms. Heavier extreme rainfall events. Storms with higher potential energy. These are the result of a human-forced warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. And South Florida finds itself sandwiched between heavier evaporation flows streaming off the Gulf of Mexico, a more volatilely stormy North Atlantic, and large rivers of moisture streaming in from the Southeast Pacific.

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(Atmospheric water vapor levels over South Florida during late June of 2016. South Florida sits between numerous heavily laden atmospheric moisture flows. As human forced warming increases evaporation, these moisture flows expand, resulting in heavier rainfall potentials during storms over South Florida. This climate change dynamic is increasing over-topping flood risks for Lake Okeechobee even as the added heat and rainfall run-off enhances the potential for toxic algae blooms like the one now afflicting South Florida. Image source: Earth Nullschool).

And as these moisture-enhanced storms of climate change dump heavier and heavier rains over South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, the choice appears to be one between flood risk or toxic algae blooms.

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Flood Risk Worsens With Climate Change

Lake Okeechobee sits at the heart of South Florida. Covering 730 square miles, the lake is bounded on the north, east, and west by farms. Run-off from these farms streams into the lake, feeding the growth of algae blooms. As the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean warmed due to human greenhouse gas emissions, rainfall events over South Florida have grown more intense. This trend increases run-off from pesticide, phosphorous, and nitrogen rich soils which then swell the lake with these chemicals and compounds — many of which promote the growth of cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae).

The increasingly heavy rains also force lake levels higher. During Winter of 2016, the wettest January in South Florida’s climate record pushed Lake Okeechobee’s water levels to 16.4 feet above sea level by February. November through May is South Florida’s dry season. So abnormally wet conditions during a typically dry period greatly increased flood risk for communities surrounding the lake as South Florida entered its June through October wet season.

Heavy rains have continued through recent months and, in order to mitigate the heightened flood risk, the US Army Corp of Engineers has been pumping large volumes of the run-off enhanced, nutrient-rich waters out of the lake in order to relieve pressure on the Hoover Dike. The Dike, for its part, is a 132 mile system of levees surrounding the lake and preventing its waters from flooding local communities during heavy rainfall events.

Lake Okeechobee Algae laden waters South Florida late June

(Lake Okeechobee [upper right of frame] and the algae-laden coastal waters of South Florida as seen in this June 26 LANCE MODIS satellite shot.)

Paul Gray, a scientist with Audubon Florida and Lake Okeechobee expert recently noted:

“One big storm would be a bad situation, really bad. We are nearing the heart of the tropical season and the corps knows they are one storm away from levels they are not comfortable with.”

To reduce pressure on the Dike, the Corps likes to keep Lake Okeechobee in a range of 12.5 to 15.5 feet above sea level. This creates a buffer zone to allow for the impacts of unexpectedly strong storms — like tropical cyclones — which can alone produce enough rainfall to push lake water levels between 1-4 feet higher.

At around 18.5 to 19.5 feet above sea level, the Hoover Dike system is under high risk of a breach or of over-topping. An event which would flood thousands of homes and businesses with 1-5 feet of water and generate a serious risk of loss of life.

So this year, with the dry season acting like the rainy season and with the rainy season now underway, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been releasing much larger volumes from the Lake in what some could call a frantic effort to keep water levels there in the safe range. These efforts, as of Thursday, July 7 produced a Lake Okeechobee water level of 14.93 feet — which was at the top edge of the safe zone. But the effort came at the cost of flushing nutrient rich waters into South Florida’s rivers and estuaries.

Mitigate Flood Risk and Toxic Algae Blooms Result

During recent years, heavy use of fertilizers has loaded up farmland soils surrounding Lake Okeechobee with phosphorous and nitrogen. As human-forced climate change has produced more extreme rainfall events over lands surrounding the lake, greater runoff of these nutrient-rich soils and chemicals into the lake has resulted.

Phosphorous levels, which government regulators like to keep in the range of 40 parts per billion in lake waters, has risen to 100 to 200 parts per billion. That’s 2.5 to 5 times the safe allowable level. And as the Army Corps of Engineers ramped up lake water outflows into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers during recent months, this influx of high nutrient lake waters helped to spur the large algae blooms now afflicting the region.

John Campbell, a spokesperson for the US Army Corps of Engineers recently noted that people often ask:

“‘Why didn’t you release more water?’ Well, this is what releasing more water looks like.”

Due to the increased water outflows from Lake Okeechobee, high nutrient levels hit river systems warmed to bacterial growth enhancing temperatures by climate change. Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) populations in these river and estuary systems then exploded. Goo painted waterways green, putrescent mats of algae formed in calmer waters, and airs smelling of rotten eggs wafted up from the suffocating rivers. These explosive and toxic bacterial growths prompted a declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Rick Scott as four South Florida counties were heavily impacted by the algae blooms.

Algae bloom Florida

(Toxic algae blooms like this one have resulted in beach closures across South Florida. Human-caused climate change spurs an increasing incidence of such toxic algae blooms by increasing water temperatures, which enhances algae growth, and by spurring more extreme heavy rainfall events — which generates increased nutrient influx into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Image source: Surfrider.)

Directly, cyanobacteria can produce a number of toxins capable of harming animal and human organ systems. Most common toxins are neurotoxins and toxins that impact the gastrointestinal track — particularly the liver. In addition, large blooms can deprive waterways of life-giving oxygen. Such anoxic conditions spur fish kills and mass production of hydrogen-sulfide generating organisms — a powerful toxin which generates the sulfuric rotten eggs smell that many South Florida locations are now reporting.

Indirectly, the blooms are unpleasant, unsightly and result in beach closures. And since the blooms became widespread, South Florida has experienced losses to its tourist industry (see toxic algae chokes business) — one of the biggest revenue producers for the State. Yet one more example of how human-forced warming not only harms the health of the natural world, but also harms human systems that rely on such natural wealth and beauty to function.

(Large algae blooms spurred by rising water outflows from an increasingly flood-stressed Lake Okeechobee resulted in tourism industry losses during the Fourth of July weekend of 2016. However, residents are rightfully concerned over long-term health risks due to the algae blooms. Note that purple water in gaps between the algae as well as reports of ‘rotten eggs’ smell is circumstantial evidence of increasing concentrations of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria that tends to thrive in the anoxic dead zones produced by the algae. Video Source: CBS Youtube.)

Conditions in Context

The US Army Corps of Engineers is now reducing Lake Okeechobee water outflows in an effort to limit harmful algae blooms over South Florida waterways and estuaries. Outflow levels, as of June 30 were cut by 35 percent. As a result, some of the nutrients feeding algae blooms will be removed from waterways. But it’s questionable if the large algae blooms can be entirely halted by this mitigation.

Warmer than normal temperatures and heavier than normal rains are expected over this region during the coming weeks and months and these conditions will add to bloom promotion even without a larger pulse of water coming from Lake Okeechobee. In addition, reducing water flows from the lake will again push the lake to rise. And that puts South Florida one large storm away from risking an over-topping of the Hoover Levee System.

Climate change, in this context, has therefore put South Florida in a tough bind between worsening algae blooms over its waterways or worsening flood threats from a swelling Lake Okeechobee. A more immediate problem juxtaposed to the longer term risk of sea level rise — a human-forced ocean invasion which could flood the whole of South Florida by or before the end of this Century.

Links:

Why Drain Lake O? One Storm Could Push it Over its Limits.

What is Causing the Toxic Algae Blooms in Florida’s Waterways?

Army Corps to Reduce Lake Outflows Fueling Toxic Algae Blooms

Toxic Algae Chokes Florida Tourist Industry

Earth Nullschool

LANCE MODIS

CBS Youtube

Surfrider

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

Standing in Line for Hours to Vote on Election Day? Republican Voter Suppression Most Likely to Blame.

(North Miami, FL on Election Day. Photo credit: Eric Jotkoff.)

In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott cut early voting days from 12 to 8. He also produced a ridiculously long and complex ballot that, by many accounts, takes as long as 12 minutes to fill out. The result of this restricting access to polling places and complex ballot combined has been enormously long lines in Florida, requiring voters to wait as many as 8 hours to exercise their democratic and human rights. The fact that the longest lines are forming in heavily Hispanic and minority areas illustrates exactly which groups Scott has targeted for suppression.

In Pennsylvania, a restrictive new voter ID law was passed by a Republican legislature. Mike Turzai, the Republican House Majority Leader, famously said of the new restrictions: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” These voter ID laws target students, minorities, and the elderly, since these groups tend to lack the credentials required to acquire the new identifications needed to cast a ballot. The result is suppressed turnout among these groups. However, courts have also suspended the Pennsylvania law after strong blow-back.

In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted fought to restrict early voting and to force through his own restrictive voter ID laws. But his efforts were blunted by courts who rolled back many of the new restrictions. Now Husted is ginning up new ways to manipulate Ohio’s vote by creating rules and technicalities that allow him to toss out provisional ballots or deny people registration. New rules put in place by Husted, just this weekend, make it possible that tens of thousands of Ohio voters may be disenfranchised.

And in Colorado, Republican Secretary of State Ed Gillespie, has tossed out thousands of voter registrations by misinforming voters of registration requirements and times, through computer ‘glitches’ that have resulted in thousands dumped from voter rolls, and through direct challenges to voters in an effort to remove their right to vote.

In total, Republicans have enacted restrictive voter ID laws in 30 states.

Combined, these restrictive actions reveal a nation-wide effort on the part of Republicans to suppress the vote. They utilize bureaucratic red tape, cheap tricks, and authoritarian use of government to restrict access to polls and dump voters who oppose their political views. This active usurping of democracy couldn’t be more cynical and heinous. More moderate and honorable republicans have been horrified by the efforts of their, less scrupulous, peers. Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman called the voter suppression led by Rick Scott ‘inexcusable’ and compared it to similar efforts in ‘third world countries.’ (See more on Whitman’s outrage at Rick Scott here.)

Given this massive effort by Republicans to disenfranchise voters, it is absolutely imperative that people do not become cynical. It makes it even more important for people to endure the long lines, the hardship, and to challenge efforts to suppress their vote at every opportunity. These actions could include standing in long lines to vote, directly challenging election officials who are attempting to remove your registration or invalidate your ballot, reporting these attempts to media, and filing civil liberties violations with the ACLU and other legal bodies to seek restitution for abuses against you. In addition, here is a number to directly contact the US Department of Justice should you witness any voting irregularities or illegal activity: 1-800-253-3931.

All that said, Jon Husted, Ed Gillespie, and Governor Rick Scott should all be tried for their illegal and immoral efforts to violate the civil liberties of American citizens, to undermine democracy, and to erode the public authority defined by the Voting Rights Act. Such wanton voter suppression should not be coddled and we risk moral hazard if we do not pursue all legal means to hold accountable those who have willfully and maliciously attempted to use government as an implement for limiting the democratic voice of the American people.

Links:

http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/19320

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/wp/2012/11/05/roundup-voter-irregularities/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/05/christine-todd-whitman_n_2076800.html

http://boingboing.net/2012/11/06/voter-suppression-targeting-t.html

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