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Alternatives For Healing


by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: What are energy droughts and how can we get around them? – B.B., Houston, TX

Solar and wind power may be free and renewable, but they rely on natural processes that are beyond our control. Proponents of fossil fuels point out that if the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow for an extended period, the grid could suffer a so-called “energy drought” where there just isn’t enough power to meet the demand. A recent study by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) found that in some parts of the U.S., such energy droughts are not uncommon and can last anywhere from a few hours to almost a week.

“For solar energy, it would be when it’s really cloudy or hazy, maybe even smoky. And for wind, it would be atmospheric conditions that just have no wind blowing,” says PNNL’s Cameron Bracken, lead author on the study. “When we have a completely decarbonized grid and depend heavily on solar and wind, energy droughts could have huge amounts of impact on the grid.”

There are several ways to mitigate the risk of energy droughts. For one, minimizing demand for energy—and reducing consumption via the adoption of energy-sipping appliances and devices—is pivotal in circumventing energy droughts. Implementing energy-saving technologies across industries, homes and transportation reduces overall demand, lessening strain on the grid during peak times. Initiatives promoting energy conservation, like better insulation, efficient appliances, and public transport systems, contribute significantly to offsetting energy scarcity and can be important hedges against energy droughts.

Furthermore, grid modernization is vital for best management of energy supply and demand. Smart grids with advanced monitoring and control technologies enhance reliability, detect faults promptly, and enable efficient energy distribution. Integrating energy storage solutions like batteries or pumped hydroelectric storage helps store excess energy during surplus times for use during shortages, enhancing grid stability. Another way to protect against crippling energy droughts is through the development of microgrids—small, controllable power systems composed of one or more generation units connected to nearby users that can function independently or in conjunction with the main grid. These microgrids can sustain essential services during larger grid outages, bolstering resilience against energy droughts.

Developing better energy storage systems, i.e. batteries, is key to the fossil-fuel-free grid of the future if it is to be fed by intermittent renewables like solar and wind. Tesla’s Powerwall, an integrated battery system that stores solar energy for backup when the grid goes down, is a great first step. But critics argue that we cannot tolerate the scale of lithium mining it would take to create enough lithium-ion batteries (the technology behind the Powerwall) to store enough energy to power a world without coal, natural gas and the other fossil fuels. A revolution in battery storage could prove to be key to whether or not we can successfully transition away from fossil fuels in time to save the planet from cataclysmic climate change.

CONTACTS: 'Energy droughts' in wind and solar can last nearly a week, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/12/231211200121.htm; Pacific Northwest could experience ‘energy droughts,’ study finds, https://www.opb.org/article/2024/01/01/pacific-northwest-oregon-solar-wind-energy-outage-power-electricity/.

Dear EarthTalk: Are solar roadways still a “thing”? Why don’t we have them everywhere now helping us keep our EVs charged up and rolling? -- Jason M., Shelton, CT

In 2014 the concept of solar powered photovoltaic road panels that could collect sunlight and convert it into useable energy went viral when the Idaho-based company Solar Roadways heralded it as a solution to the global energy crisis. The company proposed developing solar-powered panels to form smart roads, highways and parking lots. These solar roadways would theoretically produce electricity while providing other smart features for the cars and trucks that drove on them.

According to Solar Roadways, the benefits of their solar roadways would be more than just the production of clean energy. The roads would provide heating to melt off snow and ice and would use LEDs for lighting and to warn about road obstructions. Solar roadways could also charge electric cars through inductive charging. This means that EVs would be charged just by driving on the solar roadways.

So why aren’t solar roadways being installed across the U.S.? Despite the possible benefits of solar roadways, implementation at scale would be quite a challenge. For one, since solar roadways would lie flat on the ground, they wouldn’t be ideal for maximizing their exposure to direct sunlight. On a regular solar farm, the panels are angled towards the sun to maximize efficiency, and even then, the typical solar panel can only use about 20 percent of the energy that the sun produces. It would be more efficient to run the solar panels alongside the road rather than on top of it. Creating solar roadways that can withstand heavy vehicle pressure while still letting in sunlight has been another difficult task. Also, there are safety and noise concerns. And the LEDs which would act as traffic lines and obstruction warnings are difficult to see during the day. Solar roadways are also incredibly expensive compared to regular old pavement.

While Solar Roadways has not implemented the concept as of yet in the U.S., there have been a few projects abroad that have attempted to turn the concept into reality. In 2016, the French company WattWay completed a 0.62-mile installation in Normandy, France. The project was met with excitement, but quickly fell flat as the road generated little energy and was unable to withstand normal traffic wear and tear. A similar thing happened in Jinan, China when in 2017 Chinese engineers constructed their own 0.62-mile solar roadway. It was closed within a week due to traffic damage and the theft of road panels.

While these false starts don’t bode well for the future of widespread solar roadways, EV charging roads may still be an option. In 2021 the state of Michigan pledged to complete a wireless charging road by 2023. The leading company in the project, Electreon, says that the EV charging road is complete, and will open to the public in the next few years after a testing period. The emergence of EV charging roads would promote the usage of electric cars and provide some reprieve from cars’ fuel emissions.

CONTACTS: All about Solar Roadways: the promise versus the reality, https://www.solarreviews.com/blog/all-about-solar-roadways; Understanding Solar Roadways: An Engineering Failure of Epic Proportions, https://interestingengineering.com/innovation/solar-roadways-engineering-failure; First wireless charging road in the U.S. completed in Michigan, https://www.teslarati.com/first-wireless-charging-road-u-s-michigan/.

Dear EarthTalk: Is compostable plastic too good to be true? -- Peter C., Pittsburgh, PA

In recent years there has been a global movement to pressure corporations into becoming more eco-friendly. One of the most frequent measures taken by these companies is limiting the use of single-use plastics and replacing them with so-called compostable plastics. Compostable plastics are frequently confused with biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable plastics are defined by their ability to degrade completely into biomass within a given time frame; compostable plastics aredesigned to be processed in industrial composting facilities. Many of the alleged “100% compostable,” plastic-like materials are made from polylactic acid (PLA), a polymer derived from the fermentation of various types of starch.

Of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic that have been discarded since the wonder material started being mass-produced in the 1950s, only around 600 million tons has been recycled. Almost five billion tons have been either sent to landfills or left in the natural environment. Plastic production also contributes immensely to greenhouse gas emissions. Aside from the disastrous effects plastic has on the environment, it can also be extremely dangerous to human health. Microplastics from air or water can cause significant damage to cells in the body, causing cancers, lung disease and birth defects. Residents of “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana face the highest rates of cancer in the U.S., largely as a result of the plastic production plants along the lower Mississippi River.

Compostable plastic—which would theoretically leave no trace on the environment—sounds like a great solution. However, it isn’t as simple as it sounds. While plastic-like materials like PLA will decompose in the right conditions, it’s rare that PLA is disposed of correctly. Putting a cup made of PLA in your home compost won’t break it down as it requires a specific set of microorganisms used in industrial composting that need temperatures well above what most home composts can reach. A UK-based science experiment from 2022, “The Big Compost Experiment,” had citizens carry out home compost experiments to test the performance of compostable plastics. The public was generally very confused about what was compostable and what wasn’t, and many of the objects labeled as “home compostable” did not fully disintegrate into their compost bins.

What needs to change to make compostable plastics a more viable option for the future? First off, there are very few facilities in the U.S. that are set up to handle the disposal of PLA products. Research by BioCycle magazine found that only 49 out of 4,700 composters nationwide accepted compostable plastic products. The good intentions of using compostable plastic don’t make a difference if the waste system isn’t set up to process it. Because so few facilities accept PLA, much of it ends up in landfills. It is also difficult to distinguish between regular and compostable plastic. When regular plastic gets into composts it can cause soil and waterway pollution. So, yes—compostable plastic is too good to be true. However, improvements in waste system infrastructure could enable them to play a more effective role in the future.

CONTACTS: Home Compostable Plastics Are Too Good to Be True, www.treehugger.com/home-compostable-plastics-too-good-true-7096891; Your compostable cups and containers aren't reversing the plastic problem, www.popsci.com/environment/truth-about-compostable-cups/; Why biodegradables won’t solve the plastic crisis, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191030-why-biodegradables-wont-solve-the-plastic-crisis.

Dear EarthTalk: What resolutions if any did negotiators agree on at the recent COP28 climate talks in Abu Dhabi? Are environmental advocates happy with the results? -- Joe Watson, via email

International negotiators from 199 countries met in Abu Dhabi in late 2023 for the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) to try to find common ground on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing cataclysmic climate change. Whether and how to phase out fossil fuels took center-stage, as did calls for increased renewable energy development, more help for climate-afflicted less-developed nations, and the creation of national adaptation plans.

So, what exactly did negotiators agree on? For one, they cited fossil fuels specifically as the cause for our ramp up in global temperatures. With a vast majority of the countries in attendance (127) now backing a phase out, environmental advocates were hoping it would be institutionalized in the agreement, but the final written draft employed weaker language, calling for “transitioning away” from fossil fuels.

“The current terminology—‘transitioning away’—is somewhat ambiguous and allows for varying interpretations,” says Climate Action Network International’s Harjeet Singh. Although “transitioning away” may be a step in the right direction, COP28 didn’t call for getting rid of fossil fuels altogether and the language may be too soft to make countries act as quickly as many think they should.

Another step in the right direction was the creation of a loss and damage fund, essentially a form of climate reparations. “Loss and damage” refer to destruction caused by climate change. The fund relies on wealthy countries’ generosity and is voluntary. UAE and Germany each contributed $100 million while other countries collectively chipped in an additional $570 million.

Another positive outcome of COP28 is the oil and gas decarbonization charter which 50 oil companies signed onto, each pledging to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. These companies are responsible for only 40 percent of total global oil and gas output, but their commitment can still make a big dent in global fossil fuel production and consumption. Some 100 countries agreed to triple their renewable energy production by 2030. Parties also agreed to a national adaptation plan to try to meet requirements by 2030.

Another key issue is lack of funding. Less developed countries desperately need funds if they are to meet their COP28 aspirations, and the $770 million raised so far is a drop in the bucket given the needs. Another criticism is the lack of near-term targets, making the monitoring of progress more difficult.

Sweden’s famous youth climate activist, Greta Thunberg, describes COP28 as “another betrayal and a stab in the back” and she isn’t the only one who feels this way. But others remain optimistic that the groundwork laid at COP28 can help make COP29 next year an agreement we can all be happy about. “We didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai but this outcome is the beginning of the end,” says Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

CONTACTS: Indigenous people and climate justice groups say Cop28 was ‘business as usual’, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/dec/13/indigenous-people-and-climate-justice-groups-say-cop28-was-business-as-usual; COP28: Key outcomes agreed at the UN climate talks in Dubai, https://www.carbonbrief.org/cop28-key-outcomes-agreed-at-the-un-climate-talks-in-dubai

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been hearing a lot of negative things about electric vehicles lately. Is the bloom off the rose? -- H.J. Columbia, MD

It has been a tough run for electric vehicles (EVs) in recent months, with lots of bad press about everything from shorter ranges in cold weather to consumer frustration with getting stranded to the huge carbon footprint of the newfangled cars when factoring in life cycle assessments that include manufacturing. Whether or not these problems are enough to reduce sales in 2024 for the first time in the modern history of EVs is anybody’s guess.

Perhaps EV’s biggest Achilles heel is the precious metal mining involved. According to Hesham Bakhbakhi, an expert in the central heating and renewable energy industry, the manufacture of a single Tesla Model Y battery requires moving some 250 tons of soil to obtain the needed metals (lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt), not counting hundreds more pounds of aluminum, steel, graphite and plastic that are needed. “The Caterpillar 994A is used for earthmoving to obtain the essential minerals. It consumes 264 gallons of diesel in 12 hours,” says Bakhbakhi. “Finally, you get a ‘zero emissions’ car.”

According to the International Energy Agency, manufacturing EVs requires six times the minerals and metals as an internal combustion engine vehicle. To add insult to injury, most of the minerals Tesla uses to manufacture these batteries come from China or Africa. “Much of the labor for extracting the minerals in Africa is done by children,” adds Bakhbakhi. “If we buy electric cars, it's China who profits most.”

A 2019 study by Ernst & Young found that it takes 65,000-80,000 miles of driving (5-7 years) to offset the carbon footprint of purchasing a new EV. But according to Carl Medlock of Seattle’s Medlock and Sons, one of the few independent Tesla repair shops in the country, you’ll have to replace that EV battery every eight years or so—at a cost of $15,000-$25,000! And you would be starting the whole carbon footprint cycle all over again. Indeed, many EVs that aren’t even that old are heading for the scrapyard instead of onto a second life on the road. None of this is good news for consumers or the environment.

Perhaps this is why you can score a used EV surprisingly cheap. Rental car company Hertz announced recently that it is selling off some 20,000 EVs from its rental fleet with prices starting at only $20,000 for a high-mileage but well-maintained Tesla Model 3. Hertz is also unloading Chevy Bolt EUVs starting at around $22,500 and Tesla Model Ys for $33,000. Hertz says it’s time to sell these cars to better balance its supply and expected demand for EVs, but analysts point to the company needing to scrap lower-margin rentals and reduce damage expenses associated with EVs, which are much more expensive to fix after an accident or breakdown than their internal combustion counterparts. But one can’t also wonder whether the battery replacement cost of high-mileage EVs has a bit to do with Hertz’s big sell-off now.

Nevertheless, most environmentalists remain bullish on the transition to EVs and view these bumps in the road as opportunities to learn and improve so that someday in the not-to-distant future, we can get most of the gas-guzzling cars and trucks off the American road and power our EVs with clean, renewable energy.

CONTACTS: Minerals used in electric cars compared to conventional cars, https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/charts/minerals-used-in-electric-cars-compared-to-conventional-cars; Why Tesla's woes signal trouble for the electric car industry, https://www.kuow.org/stories/why-tesla-s-woes-signal-trouble-for-the-electric-car-industry.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some all-natural ways to control insects and rodents? – P.L., Trenton, NJ

Natural pest control has become increasingly popular given the slew of health and effectiveness issues with conventional pesticides derived from synthetic chemicals. Since synthetic pesticides became popular after World War II, toxic chemicals have infiltrated nearly 90 percent of U.S. waterways. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Americans carry around some 43 different pesticides in their bloodstreams. These chemicals can trigger a wide range of symptoms, like nausea, vomiting and headaches, and cause bigger health problems like lung damage, cancers and reproductive issues. These pesticides are especially dangerous to kids, who are typically less resilient to the chemicals. Out of all the cases of pesticide poisoning in the U.S., around half are in kids under the age of six.

And these pesticides aren’t always 100 percent effective. They often can’t get rid of entire infestations as they are unable to target pests at every stage of their life. A pesticide might target adult fleas but not be able to target flea eggs. In some instances, pesticides can make issues worse, like spurring ant colonies to divide into multiple colonies and increase reproduction. Bugs can also grow resistant to certain pesticides.

So, what are some other options to deal with pests besides spraying toxic chemicals? One strategy, integrated pest management (IPM), focuses on preventing infestation before it starts and only uses pesticides as a last resort. The main tenets of IPM include preventing vermin from entering the home, keeping the home clean, picking your battles by only killing dangerous bugs, and going green by killing or trapping pests without using pesticides.

There are a few natural pest repellants that you may have already in your home. Dish soap can keep ants away and be sprayed where ants have been seen in your house. Lime and lemon juice keep spiders away, and salt can get rid of fleas. Vinegar also works well at keeping away many types of pests, including ants, fruit flies and mosquitos. Mixing vinegar with an orange peel, tea tree oil or lemon rind oil will make it even stronger. But if you already have a major infestation in the home, these remedies usually won’t make them go away. These are more preventative measures to stem the chances of pests infiltrating your home.

Finding effective natural repellents on the market can be tough. Natural repellents that avoid synthetic chemicals and instead use active ingredients like lemongrass or rosemary oil are regulated differently than other repellent products. Because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems the chemicals used in natural repellents harmless, they do not test them for effectiveness. This loophole allows companies that sell natural repellents to avoid needing to prove that their product actually works. There are plenty of ways to limit pesticide use, and natural ingredients are a great option to prevent pests from entering your home. However, when looking for “natural repellants” on the market, be sure to do your research to be sure what you are buying will actually work.

CONTACTS: Control Household Pests Without Scary Poisons, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/control-household-pests-without-scary-poisons; 9 Best Natural Pest Control for Bugs, Rodents, and More, https://www.grove.co/best/natural-pest-control; Using spiders as environmentally-friendly pest control, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/02/230216172211.htm; 10 Natural Pest Control Remedies for Your Home, https://www.familyhandyman.com/list/natural-pest-control-remedies-for-your-home/.

Dear EarthTalk: What ever became of the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona and what did we learn from it? -- B.C., Tampa, FL

Biosphere 2 project began in 1984, led by John Allen who called it “The Human Experiment.” The project sent eight explorers, or “biospherians,” to live in a sealed ecosystem for two years. The facility they would be living in came complete with an intensive agriculture unit and five separate biomes including a tropical rainforest and a savanna grassland. Early on, Biosphere 2 was the world’s first mini biosphere and became a landmark in the fields of biospherics and closed ecological systems. Many wondered why was it called Biosphere 2 if it was a first. That’s because Biosphere 1 is planet Earth.

The Biosphere 2 experiment was meant to explore the possibility of using closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space as an alternative to Earth’s biosphere. The three main goals of the experiment were education, eco-technology development, and to learn how well their eco-laboratory worked. The project also hoped to help NASA and other space agencies learn more about life-support systems for long-term space missions.

In 1991, the eight biospherians began what would be their two-year stay in Biosphere 2. The group consisted of four men and four women—five Americans, two Britons and one Belgian. Their plan would be to spend two years studying how a mini-biosphere would work with as few outside inputs as possible. As a fairly new concept, there were many challenges that came with living in an enclosed biome. The facility had to replicate many of Earth’s innate services, such as ocean waves. Each biome had to have the correct temperature and rainfall amounts. The biospherians also had to grow their own food and slaughter their own livestock. Growing their own food was such an endeavor that it required each crew member to work on farming three to four hours a day, five days a week.

Biosphere 2 dramatically expanded scientists’ visualization of what living off-planet would entail. It revolutionized the field of experimental ecology and proved that a sealed ecosystem could work for years, a lesson that the Mars colony planners can build off of. The experiment also provided lessons on how to maintain nature in the grasps of global warming. The biospherians learned how to keep stressed reefs alive, how to protect rainforests, and how to work with plants to keep carbon dioxide levels down.

Since 2006, the Biosphere 2 facilities have been owned and managed by the University of Arizona. It is no longer a closed ecological system, but a facility where ecological systems similar to Earth’s biomes are experimentally researched. These experiments allow scientists to learn more about the effects of global warming out in the real world. In 2023 the University of Arizona launched SAM, a Space Analog for the Moon and Mars. Built around the original Biosphere 2 facility, SAM serves as a controlled environment or greenhouse for visiting research teams to live while conducting individual research projects.

CONTACTS: Biosphere 2’s Lessons about Living on Earth and in Space, https://spj.science.org/doi/10.34133/2021/8067539; SAM Mars Analog, https://biosphere2.org/research/research-initiatives/sam-mars-analog; Biosphere 2: The Once Infamous Live-In Terrarium Is Transforming Climate Research, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/biosphere-2-the-once-infamous-live-in-terrarium-is-transforming-climate-research/.

Dear EarthTalk: Are solid-state electric vehicle (EV) batteries a solution to some of the issues with the lithium-ion batteries powering our EVs today? -- Jack Whitcore, Salem, OR

Solid-state batteries have emerged as a promising technological advancement that could potentially revolutionize the EV industry. As concerns about climate change intensify, there is a growing need to transition away from nonrenewable energy sources, not only in power generation but also in transportation. The widespread adoption of solid-state batteries could play a key role in driving the prevalence of EVs, offering a cleaner and more sustainable alternative to fossil fuel-powered cars.

To understand the significance of solid-state batteries for EVs, one needs to grasp the current challenges with lithium-ion batteries—the main energy storage technology in EVs today. They have many drawbacks: limited energy storage, fire safety concerns, short lifespans and a huge carbon footprint due to the mining of lithium and other heavy metals. These have prompted researchers to explore alternatives.

Solid-state batteries address many issues by replacing the liquid electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries with a solid electrolyte. This cuts the risk of fires, and allows for more storage. And the solid-states have a lower carbon footprint than the lithium-ions and have longer lifespans, so they’re a more durable and sustainable EV option. According to the Centre for Process Innovation’s Scott Gorman, solid-state batteries use fewer materials, and could reduce climate impacts by 39 percent compared to lithium-ion batteries.

The environmental implications of moving to solid-state EV batteries are significant. As demand for EVs keeps rising, reducing the carbon footprint associated with their production and operation becomes imperative. Solid-state batteries can help by offering a cleaner and more efficient energy storage solution. With nonrenewable energy sources a major contributor to climate change, the adoption of solid-state batteries in EVs aligns with global efforts to mitigate the impact of transportation on the environment.

Moreover, the development of solid-state batteries is driving innovation in the automotive industry. Companies investing in research and development to improve the performance and cost-effectiveness of solid-state batteries are likely to spearhead the next wave of EV technology and lead to more affordable and accessible EVs, making them a viable option for a broader segment of the population.

So far, Toyota is leading the race to develop solid-state batteries. Volkswagen, Hyundai, Nissan and Honda are also developing their own solid-state batteries. And several smaller companies—Schaeffler, QuantumScape, SolidEnergy Systems, Solid Power, Sila Nanotechnologies, Albemarle and Ilika, to name a few—are dedicated to developing solid state batteries that can be mass produced inexpensively.

However, challenges remain in scaling up the production of solid-state batteries to meet growing demand for EVs. Manufacturers need to overcome various production costs and scalability issues. Proponents of the technology are pushing for government support to help bolster R&D and commercialization efforts so that someday in the future we can have EVs with the safest, greenest batteries possible.

CONTACTS: The search for a better EV battery, https://www.axios.com/2023/11/02/batteries-solid-state-lithium-electric-vehicles; Toyota’s Rival In Solid-State EV Development Is A Supplier: Schaeffler, https://www.autoweek.com/news/a46192062/solid-state-ev-battery-development-toyota-schaeffler/.

Dear EarthTalk: How much “old-growth” forest is left in the U.S. today and what are we doing to protect it? -- Paul Belaire, Chico, CA

Scientists have found it tough to settle on a precise definition for old-growth forests. There’s no single formula to determine what is considered an “old” tree, and growth rates among tree species are varied. Some species have ages at which they can be considered “old.” At 80 years, Gambel oaks are considered old-growth, but for bristlecone pines it is 300 years. In general, old-growth forests are areas of land with layers of undisturbed trees and vegetation. Prior to becoming old-growth, trees enter a stage where they are considered “mature.” Mature forest definitions are even broader and have no specific age.

One categorization system that Wilderness Society scientists have proposed is to base a tree’s maturity on its “biomass”—the amount of collected carbon stored in the tree. One of the reasons that old-growth forests are important is that the trunks and branches of old trees store large amounts of carbon and thus are crucial to fighting climate change because they absorb more carbon than they release into the atmosphere. When these trees burn in wildfires, like the ones that have devastated California in recent years, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

In early 2023, the U.S. initiated its first national inventory of mature and old-growth forests. It revealed more than expected, showing that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management collectively oversee over 50,000 square miles of old-growth forests and 125,000 square miles of mature forests. Most of this land is in the West and together covers an area larger than California. Of all of the U.S. forests, only about six percent are old-growth. Decades of logging, development, drought and wildfire have torn through the forests, heavily decreasing their numbers. Some 32 percent of U.S. forests are considered mature, and it’s equally important to protect these so that they can one day become old-growth forests.

Recent actions by the Biden administration have moved to conserve groves of old-growth trees. The proposal would limit commercial timber harvesting in old-growth forests, while allowing logging in mature forests that are not considered old yet. This proposal is somewhat controversial, as many believe that the government should be thinning out forests to reduce wildfire risks. Earlier this year, the Biden administration also reinstated roadless forests protections in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, one of the last intact temperate rainforests in the world. Indigenous communities there have been protesting destructive logging and development for years, and this achievement is a result of their efforts.

The Tongass Forest is a prime example of the change that can come through community efforts. The best way to help protect old-growth forests is to speak out. With enough public support, government agencies can be persuaded to enact stronger protection policies. Sign petitions, join protests, write letters to your representatives. Every bit of support can help.

CONTACTS: Mature and Old-Growth Forests: Definition, Identification, and Initial Inventory on Lands Managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/mature-and-old-growth-forests-tech.pdf; US moves to protect old growth forests as climate change threatens their survival, https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/us-moves-protect-growth-forests-climate-change-threatens-105767684; Tongass roadless protections reinstated: 4 reasons that’s great news, https://www.wilderness.org/articles/blog/tongass-roadless-protections-reinstated-4-reasons-thats-great-news.

Dear EarthTalk: Is there really a “snow drought” in parts of the U.S. and how does this negatively affect ecosystems? -- J.L., Denver, CO

A snow drought occurs when there is a subnormal amount of snow accumulation. Two types of snow droughts are specified by the American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Meteorology: dry snow drought and warm snow drought. Dry snow drought occurs when temperatures are lower than normal. Cold air holds less moisture than warm air, and when temperatures are extremely low, lighter or even no snowfall may result. Meanwhile, warm snow drought is typically the result of elevated temperatures that replace snow with rainfall or cause the snowpack to melt prematurely.

Currently, 2023 stands as the hottest year on record. High surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean have impacted atmospheric conditions and precipitation patterns, creating a strong El Niño climate pattern. With El Niño, the warmer waters push the Pacific jet stream south of their neutral position, bringing above-average rainfall to the Southern U.S. Contrastingly, areas in the Northern U.S. experience higher temperatures and lower rainfall levels than normal.

Snowfall has been subaverage throughout the Midwest, with some areas of upper Michigan and Minnesota reaching deficits of over 20 inches. In the days of early December 2023, cities like Minneapolis reached almost 50 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures that are very unusual for that time of year. Similar statistics are being seen in the Pacific Northwest. Cities in the Northeast, like Philadelphia and New York, have experienced nearly 700 days without receiving an inch of snowfall in a single day.

Snow droughts can significantly disrupt an ecosystem’s flora and fauna. Without snow as insulation, roots are exposed to cold air, affecting plants’ health and survivability. Animals that have evolved to survive in snow, such as lynx and jackrabbits, often have more difficulty hunting prey or hiding from predators during periods of snow drought. The absence of snow cover also contributes to changes in temperature dynamics. Snow reflects sunlight and helps to regulate local temperatures. When snow is scarce, dark surfaces like soil and vegetation absorb more sunlight, leading to increased warming.

Snow droughts also have delayed consequences. Snowpack serves as a natural water reservoir and plays a critical role in regulating the precipitation cycle. When a snow drought occurs, the reduced snowpack leads to reduced snowmelt, impacting the following spring and summer months. Following a snow drought, lower soil moisture can stunt plant and crop growth and increase the likelihood and magnitude of wildfires. The diminished snowmelt weakens stream flows and therefore decreases water quality. Additionally, low flow disrupts aquatic animals’ natural migration and reproduction patterns and reduces the supply of drinking and irrigation water. Snow droughts are expected to become increasingly common as global temperatures continue to rise and the repercussions are unmistakably destructive to human activity and wildlife alike.

CONTACTS: Snow drought research finds predictability in uncertainty, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/12/211216150015.htm; Warming Signs: How Diminished Snow Cover Puts Species in Peril, https://e360.yale.edu/features/warming-signs-how-diminished-snow-cover-puts-species-in-peril.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org Send questions to question@earthtalk.org

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