In a Million Years

By Ehren Goossens

The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere averaged more than 400 parts per million globally for the first time ever in March, according to U.S. government measurements.

The recording was based on air samples taken from 40 sites around the world, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement Wednesday. It’s the highest level of the gas in at least a million years.

Increasing CO2 emissions are blamed for global climate change that causes stronger storms, melting Arctic ice and rising sea levels, according to scientists. This is the first time the emissions have reached that level on a global basis — sites in the Arctic and Hawaii recorded CO2 concentrations over 400 ppm in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

“This marks the fact that humans burning fossil fuels have caused global carbon dioxide concentrations to rise more than 120 parts per million since pre-industrial times,” Pieter Tans, lead scientist for the agency’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, said in the statement. Half of that rise has occurred since 1980, he said.

Concentrations of CO2 are rising at about 2 to 3 ppm a year. The United Nations has said that greenhouse gases should peak at no more than 450 ppm this century to maximize the chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Knack for Math

By Eric Roston

Lester Brown has spent his career making shrewd projections about the food, water, and energy people need to survive, and pushing governments to respond. None of this math brings tears to his eyes except the time in 1965 he made some calculations and risked his career advising the president of the United States to save India from starving.

Brown’s eyes misted over as the 81-year-old resource economist recalled the reaction of a U.S. agriculture attache in New Delhi to his discovery that famine was imminent in India that autumn. Few saw it coming, he warned the attache, and the U.S. would have to take extraordinary measures, transporting millions of tons of grain, to prevent mass suffering and death.

“If you’re right, it’s the biggest shipment ever,” the man told Brown, then 31, in New Delhi. “But if you’re wrong, you’re going to be a statistical clerk the rest of your life.”

Brown, a soft-spoken walking encyclopedia of global natural resources in sports jacket, slacks, and New Balance 785’s, isn’t prone to displays of emotion. Perhaps, responding to an interview question about his most meaningful accomplishment, he was moved by the audacity of the young man who told Lyndon Johnson to send a nation’s worth of food halfway around the world — or just by the impossibly swift passage of half a century.

His newest book, The Great Transition, is a counterpunch to the typical environmental gloom and doom, telling of how market forces, often despite policy, are championing renewable energy over the dirtiest fossil fuels.

But the near-disaster in India, 50 years ago this fall, shows how a crumbling pyramid of natural resources can suddenly become an avalanche. Here is Brown’s account of what happened when science and policy met in a crisis, and actually talked to each other.

Clues to a nightmare

Brown, who grew up on a tomato farm in southern New Jersey, would go on to serve as a foreign policy aid to the secretary of agriculture, Orville Freeman. His breakthrough as a prognosticator came in 1963, when, as a staffer in the department, he wrote a report combining population and food production projections that U.S. News & World Report featured in a cover story. “The conclusion: in most of the world, creeping hunger looms,” the magazine wrote.

When the department received a request from the U.S. Agency for International Development in New Delhi, someone needed to fly over to evaluate a draft of India’s five-year economic plan for agriculture. The country’s grain production had been failing, with the U.S. sending some of its surplus east to help.

Brown describes that 1965 trip to India as if he had walked into a nation-size jigsaw puzzle and started collecting pieces.

He’d begin his days reading newspapers from around the country, each of which seemed to carry isolated accounts of local droughts. That was one puzzle piece. The head of Esso (now ExxonMobil) in India, whom he met at a diplomatic reception, glowed about business: Indian farmers had doubled their diesel purchases over the previous year to power irrigation pumps running full throttle to water dying crops. One more piece of the puzzle. An embassy official Brown knew showed up at work unexpectedly one day when he had said he’d be in the north duck-hunting. The man had canceled his annual trip because the lake had run dry. Another piece.

The anecdotal evidence piled up and pointed to one conclusion. The country’s farmers would fall dramatically short of the grain needed by Indians, then numbering 480 million. Famine was imminent.

From whatever data he could assemble, Brown projected a deficit of at least 10 million tons of grain below the Indian government’s official demand estimate of 95 million tons. Previously India had never imported more than 4 million tons a year. If Brown’s calculations were correct, feeding the nation would require a huge mobilization.

Working against him, and the clock, was a villain common enough in action movies: bureaucracy. With critical days ticking by, diplomats would not dispatch the message to Washington until they received official permission to do so from their embassy superiors. At last they got it, and Brown’s estimate found receptive ears back in Washington. President Lyndon Johnson would say that India’s food problem “ought to be attacked as if we were at war,” according to India and the United States: Estranged Democracies, 1941-1991, by Dennis Kux, who is now a senior policy scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Johnson had an “intense, obsessive personal involvement” with India’s over-reliance on food aid, particularly from the U.S. “The India food question went right to where he lived,” Walt Rostow, a National Security Council member, told Kux. “It was part of Johnson’s fundamental concern for human beings and his hatred of poverty.”

Yet, fighting an actual war in Vietnam, Johnson was probably also conscious that if bread prices started rising because of Indian food aid, it wouldn’t help boost his popularity.

The president’s gamble

President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.
Photographer: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

If mobilization was to happen, it needed to happen fast. It was October, the monsoon was nowhere to be seen, and inventories of grain were running low.

The president charged Freeman, and Freeman charged Brown, with drawing up a bilateral agreement that would cover both his short- and long-term concerns. Johnson wanted a policy to solve two problems: avoid the coming disaster, but also set India on a path to independent and stable agriculture. If necessary, he wanted to use the former as a tool to extract the latter.

The stakes, in politics and people’s lives, were high. Johnson didn’t want to be seen as pressuring India to change its agriculture policies by withholding food aid, even though that’s what he was doing. He instructed Freeman to negotiate in secret.

“If anybody finds out about this, your ass will be hanging from a yardarm,” Johnson told Freeman, according to Kux’s book.

India in 1965 was not yet 20 years old. In the 1950s and 1960s, the government prioritized industrialization over agricultural development. It capped food prices so that people in the cities needn’t fear emptying their pockets to eat. But the same price cap kept farmers from earning enough to modernize their equipment and practices.

They needed the reverse, a price floor. They also needed the state to deregulate fertilizer production. Government-backed plants took a decade to build. Private companies could do it in a tenth of that time, Brown said.

Brown wrote those points into a three-page draft policy for the president, which Johnson immediately adopted and which would eventually be called the Treaty of Rome.

A 10,000-mile bucket brigade

The USDA tapped logistics specialists who had served in the Army Quartermaster Corps in World War II. They leased an Esso supertanker longer than a football field, the Manhattan, and anchored it in the Bay of Bengal to act as a floating harbor, because India’s ports were insufficient to handle so vast a scale of imports.

Trains delivered U.S. Midwestern wheat to ships awaiting them in Galveston, Texas, and New Orleans. About two ships a day left for India, more than 600 in all, according to Brown’s 2013 memoir, Breaking New Ground. They docked to the Manhattan and emptied their grain into it. Thirty-foot boats called dhows then filled up with grain and carried it up the Ganges. About one-fifth of the U.S. wheat harvest in 1965 was shipped to South Asia. India produced only 77 million tons of grain, 18 million tons below the official demand projections.

“It was the largest movement of grain between two countries in history,” Brown said. “We managed to get the grain in there and avoid the famine, but time became everything in that effort.”

Diplomacy didn’t stop when the first ships left. The new agreement, and Johnson himself, made clear that emergency food aid would be contingent on the Indian agricultural reforms price floors, instead of ceilings, and deregulation of fertilizer plants. To ensure the changes went through, the president personally managed the release of grain ships to India.

The reforms took hold, and the “green revolution” in Indian food production was under way. “India doubled its wheat harvest in seven years,” Brown said.

Brown left government in the late 1960s to begin a career in research and advocacy. He founded the Worldwatch Institute in 1974. A recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant” in 1987 for his research on “global economics and the natural systems that support it,” Brown launched his current research group, the Earth Policy Institute.

A cliche is born

The word “sustainability” has gained wide currency among governments, civil society groups, and, intriguingly, large companies over the past decade or so. Lester Brown has done as much as anybody else to put it there. The notion comes out of concerns in the 1960s and 1970s about the earth’s “carrying capacity” for humans. The first reference to environmental and societal sustainability in the New York Times, for example, is a May 1978 article about a Worldwatch study by Brown. “As human needs outstrip the carrying capacity of biological systems and as oil reserves shrink, the emphasis in economic thinking must shift from growth to sustainability,” he said at the time.

But Brown’s successes as a resource economist stand out against a harsher truth. If environmentalists had a perfect prediction record, the earth would already have been destroyed several times over. Brown himself has taken his share of direct hits to the jaw. “Never right but never in doubt,” Reason wrote in 2009.

In the half-century since Brown began his career, scientists and economists have continuously monitored both the global economy and the natural systems it runs on, with increasing, and eternally insufficient, precision. Resource problems are rolling problems. They are often difficult to see, difficult to project, and difficult to respond to.

If there’s one thing that’s focusing minds at this point, it’s this. Three billion more people are coming by the 2050’s, and a couple billion will be middle-class consumers before then. Everybody is going to want everything — food, water, fuel — so it’s best to make sure now that there’ll be enough.

Just as India was wholly unprepared for the failed monsoon of 1965, it and other nations today may be leaving themselves wide open to drought and famine.

India in particular is draining its aquifers and rivers. More than half of the nation today faces “high to extremely high water stress,” according to the World Resources Institute, which has worked with companies and other groups to develop a water-stress mapping tool for India.

This map shows the severity of water stress throughout India.
World Resources Institute; http://www.indiawatertool.in

But in Iran, poor water management has helped turn rich agricultural land in the country’s central region, around Isfahan, to dust. Farmers in March smashed a pipeline carrying water away from their province and clashed with police over local access to water.

And California continues to overpump its aquifers to make up for its desperately scant rainfall. “Water shortages are going to emerge as a threat to food security before climate change,” Brown says.

That makes it all the more surprising that Congress may slash NASA’s Earth observation budget. The program that runs satellites such as the SMAP soil monitor could see a decline of more than $300 million from its current budget level of $1.9 billion.

SMAP will monitor soil moisture and help predict droughts and floods. The NASA budget that pays for this and other such programs is at risk of major cuts.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

Half a century later, Brown’s research and writing continue, with an upbeat twist. “Now, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began,” he and three Earth Policy Institute co-authors write, “we are investing in sources of energy that can last as long as the earth itself.”

Brown, who started his career probing the vagaries of global population and food production statistics, has a local hobby, the annual Cherry Blossom 10-mile race in Washington, DC. Studying the results of previous races, he noticed a gradual drop-off in the population of racers between 55 and 75 years old. From there, the running population drops precipitously for competitors 75 to 80. There’s typically one participant in the 80-and-over category.

Plans

By Linda Lam

The unofficial start to summer is just around the corner, and if you are one of the millions with travel or outdoor plans this Memorial Day weekend then you will want to know if weather will impact your plans.

Many are hoping for dry and warm conditions for the holiday weekend, but not everyone will get what they wish for, as some areas will continue to see the threat for flash flooding and severe thunderstorms.

Rain and thunderstorms will likely cause some travel delays, especially as AAA expects that automotive travel this Memorial Day will be up 5.3 percent to 33 million travelers compared to last year, which would be the highest volume in ten years.

Below we break down the forecast Friday through Monday for each region.

Friday’s Forecast

Friday's Forecast

Friday’s Forecast

If you are traveling to your weekend destination on Friday or are starting your holiday weekend early, much of the East will find no weather disruptions with generally dry conditions anticipated. A few showers are possible in northern New England and a few thunderstorms may develop in Florida.

Elsewhere, scattered showers and thunderstorms will be found from Louisiana and Texas through the central Plains and into portions of the inter-mountain West. The risk of flooding will continue in the southern Plains, as will the chance for a few severe thunderstorms.

Friday will be the coolest day of the weekend for most areas with temperatures near average for most locations east of the Mississippi, where highs will range from the 50s and 60s in the Great Lakes and interior Northeast to 90s in Florida.  The Plains and Southwest, however, will see high temperatures up to 20 degrees below average, with widespread highs in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The Northwest will see highs near to above average and will be in the 70s and 80s.

Travel Impacts Likely: Interstate 35 from San Antonio, Texas northward to Wichita, Kansas will see the potential for locally heavy rain. Interstate 70 from eastern Kansas to eastern Utah could also see some slower travel due to showers and thunderstorms.

Saturday’s Forecast

Saturday's Forecast

Enlarge

Saturday’s Forecast

Scattered showers and thunderstorms will fire up once again, with a few severe storms possible, in the central and southern Plains, with another disturbance in the region. Showers and storms will also develop in parts of the West, including the Pacific Northwest. Most of California and the Southwest, though, will remain dry. Typical thunderstorms will develop in Florida, but otherwise areas east of the Mississippi will enjoy a dry day with high pressure in control.

Temperatures will be close to average for much of the country, with below average temperatures persisting in the Southwest and the Plains. Much of the country will enjoy highs in the 60s and 70s, with 80s in the South. However, it will be a chilly start to the day in northern New England and upstate New York with lows in the 30s.

Travel Impacts Likely: Interstate 80 from Omaha, Nebraska, westward into Salt Lake City with showers and thunderstorms likely. Interstate 95 in Florida will also likely see travel troubles due to thunderstorms.

Sunday’s Forecast

Sunday's Forecast

Enlarge

Sunday’s Forecast

Temperatures continue to warm across the country, ahead of a low pressure system slowly pushing east. Highs will be in the 70s and 80s from the Northeast into the Southeast and southern Plains, while the Midwest and much of the West will see temperatures in the 60s and 70s. The Southwest and central California will see highs in the 80s, and a few spots in the Desert Southwest may reach 90 degrees.

The risk of showers and thunderstorms will spread east, stretching from the Ohio Valley to the Mississippi Valley, as well as westward into the Plains and the mountains of the West. Flooding and severe storms will remain a threat in the southern Plains. Elsewhere, the best chance for a dry day will be in the Southeast, portions of New England and New York, as well as the Southwest and West Coast.

Travel Impacts Likely: The chance for showers and thunderstorms may bring some travel delays to Interstate 90 from Chicago and westward into Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming and eastern Montana. Interstate 65 from Indianapolis to Nashville and through Alabama to the Gulf Coast could also see wet roads.

Monday’s Forecast

Monday's Forecast

Monday’s Forecast

The chance for showers and thunderstorms is expected to slide farther north and east to end the holiday weekend as a warm front moves into the Midwest and Northeast. Showers and thunderstorms are possible from the Northeast through the Midwest and into parts of the South and Plains. A few scattered thunderstorms remain in the forecast for the interior West, while along the West coast dry conditions will likely prevail.

Temperatures really begin to rise in the East where highs will be above average. It will feel like summer, as temperatures may reach the 90s in the Southeast and even in the Mid-Atlantic. Otherwise, temperatures will generally be near average with highs in the 60s and 70s from New England into the Midwest and much of the Northwest while the Southwest will see temperatures in the 80s and 90s.

Travel Impacts Likely: Rain and thunderstorms may slow your trip home along portions of Interstate 75 from Florida and Georgia into Ohio and Michigan. Interstate 90 will also likely see thunderstorm-related delays, especially later in the day from Syracuse to southern Minnesota.

Too Late

By Zain Haidar

The world’s longest-running study of predator-prey interactions is running out of subjects. Lake Superior’s Isle Royale, where the study has been conducted for nearly six decades, is down to its last three wolves.

As Nature journal reports, scientists have studied the relationship between moose and wolves on the 210-square-mile island for the last 57 years, but the population of carnivores has taken major hits through disease and birth defects over the past decade.

Isle Royale researchers say that the wolf population has plummeted to three in their most recent report, compared to nine wolves last year.

John Vucetich, project leader and associate professor of wildlife ecology at Michigan Technological University, said in a statement that the wolf population is likely beyond redemption.

Vucetich and co-leader Rolf Peterson have called for ‘genetic rescue’ for years; meaning, with the importation of fresh wolves (and thus, fresh wolf DNA), the ailing population could have been bolstered and ultimately saved.

Now that window has shut.

“There is now a good chance that it is too late to conduct genetic rescue,” Vucetich said.

Inbreeding, the researchers say, weakened the island’s wolf population by introducing skeletal deformations and diseases that increased mortality rates.

While the study of predators will likely come to an end, the disappearing wolf population affords other scientific opportunities.

As the wolves vanish from Isle Royale, moose thrive. The researchers say that moose numbers jump by around 22 percent each year and range near 1,250 now. With no wolves to cut those numbers down, the voracious moose will continue to feast on the island’s landscape until it’s nearly barren.

There have been calls for intervention, as Vucetich and Peterson evidence, but some argue that a hands-off approach is best, according to Nature.

“Chances are good that one [of the remaining wolves] is a male and one is a female, and that is how the whole population started, so it would be interesting to see what happens in the next year,” U.S. Geological Survey wolf biologist David Mech said. “I think we should just continue to study the situation and describe what happens.”

Timing Off

By Noami Eide

Just before dawn, birds wreak havoc on the stillness, cackling and calling to the world that spring has arrived and that it is time to mate. It’s 6:32 on Easter morning, the sunrise is 14 minutes away, and the world is a hazy mosaic of muted colors, too pale to call yellow or orange.

A golden-crowned sparrow sings its three descending notes, sounding mournful in a minor key among the cheerful songs of avian neighbors. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s guide, many say the golden-crowned sparrow’s whistles sound like a phrase, such as “I’m so tired” or “Oh, dear me.” The air is bustling with the songs of flirting birds, yet sleeping houses remain blissfully unaware that nature’s instinct has taken over with the change in day length.

Though this late, cool spring is an exception, temperatures on average are becoming warm before their time. Climate change has disturbed the delicate choreography that synchronizes the bloom of trees and flowers with the emergence of new wildlife and native bees. In response, evolution may try to weed out some birds and native bees that do not adapt to changes.
Male bee, climate change, global warming
A male Andrena rudbeckiae ​(bee) from Kent County, Md., photographed in June 2012.
Credit: Sam Droege/ USGS

Near the University of Maryland, on the Anacostia Tributary Trail System at Lake Artemesia, birds are ready to build their first nests, while much of nature struggles to catch up.

“Birds are being activated to sing by virtue of the sunlight right now,” said Douglas Gill, professor emeritus in the biology department at the University of Maryland. “The thing that sets off most bird activity in the springtime is the change in day length,” said Gill. “The change in day length is key to much of their activities … the sunlight comes in to their head, [and] it stimulates certain hormones that stimulate the rest of their bodies.”

Two robins hop across the ground out of the barren underbrush, too young and naïve to know how else to court in their first season. Wild daffodils scatter in the woods, but most other greenery struggles to break through to the new season. Buds hint at the season change but refuse to erupt until the temperature is more agreeable. [6 Unexpected Effects of Climate Change]

“In this part of the world, I think it’s more temperature, or for some species day length, that triggers activity and flowering,” said David Inouye, an ecologist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland who is studying the timing of wildflowers in Colorado to see the effects of climate change in high altitudes. “If you open the window or take a walk outside, you can hear flocks of geese moving around or moving north. You can hear the robins that have arrived, the cardinals [that] are singing now,” Inouye said. “Those are all signs that their biological clocks are telling them it’s coming on the time for reproduction in the spring.”
Lake Artemesia at sunrise, global warming, climate change
The sunrise at Lake Artemesia in College Park, Md. on Easter morning, 2015.
By Naomi Eide

Two small deer and four fawns freeze in their path, disturbed by any change in their natural setting. The deer blend in with the tree bark, save for the wiggle of white dotting the backside of their tails. The animals began readying for spring long before birds even thought about singing their mating songs.

By 6:50 a.m., the white tails of the deer leap high into the air, disappearing among the trees, refusing to stick around to greet visiting strangers. A cardinal flits around the underbrush, attempting to remain hidden, but its bright plumage gives it away. A river churns below, babbling with a fresh swell of rainwater to fill the banks, the only true constant in the endless change of seasons.

At 6:56 a.m., the faded colors are beginning to appear bright, a physical explanation for why some people believe in redemption and rebirth. A lone tree bursts with scarlet flowers, the sole standout among other trees making weak attempts at bloom. The moon hangs low over the tree line on the far side of a lake.

Spring is much later “because the temperatures have been a lot cooler than average. We’re pretty much on the same track as we were last year, which was notoriously late,” said Sam Droege, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “What that means is that the plants, which bees are associated with, are blooming a lot later.”

Despite the current late spring, on average the season changes have been coming earlier than normal, and there is now some mismatch among the arrival of migratory birds, the bloom of flowers and the time when bees emerge from the ground.

“The issue is, in general, not that plants are coming out later, it’s that plants are coming out earlier,” Droege said. “So the average is that the spring temperatures have been warmer and warmer and warmer over the years, and that means that the plants are coming out, blooming earlier, and the question is are the bees adjusting?”

As part of the North American Bird Phenology Program, a network of volunteer observers has recorded arrival and departure dates of migratory birds in North America from the 1880s to 1970. Volunteers are now helping to import more than 1.5 million records to track changes in migration arrival dates and to show how climate change affects migration, according to the North American Bird Phenology Program.

In the past, migrants arrived at roughly the same time every year, Droege said. Now, migrants are arriving earlier, not just compared to 100 years ago, but to 30 years ago.
Female eastern bluebird, global warming, climate change
A female eastern bluebird, caught in a glance that gives it the uncanny look of being seriously irked.
Credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

At 7:01 a.m., two Canadian geese come sweeping in for a crash landing on the still water, merrily honking to gliding neighbors below. With a splash, one goose dunks another, dipping below the surface and causing momentary chaos. The large birds will soon leave the area to return north to mate.

A metro train crashes by just as a runner emerges on the far side of the lake. Her white shoes flash across the water, progressing much more quickly than most people move on an early Sunday morning. The bright white of the new sun blends with the orange horizon beneath it, and the warmth gently touches the naked trees. The grass is just dewy enough to make it slick, and narcissus, the daffodils, vainly revel in their favored conditions, completing their bloom before other plants even have a chance to start.

It is 7:13 a.m., and the sky is now a bright blue with a handful of white clouds streaking the air. The runner makes it around the lake, disappearing back onto her original path just as two walkers and a puppy trot by.

The silhouettes of six birds sing to one another high in a tree, cast in shadow by the emerging sun and without a single leaf or flower to disguise them. Below, four little nameless birds share a branch, just birds on a wire. Another little bird’s quick departure leaves only a shaking branch behind.

At 7:22 a.m., underneath a willow tree attempting to sprout, two beavers wrestle, sending ripples through the water as they dip below. After three minutes, they finally surface and separate as if in a bitter quarrel, their pancaked tails slicing the water as they give each other the cold shoulder.
expert voices, op-ed
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Because of the lack of data, Droege’s research cannot definitively say whether or not native bees are declining. There are methods to quantify native bees, but he lacks the resources to do it. There is some indication that the native bees are not adjusting to the new spring cycle well and are suffering from habitat loss, Droege said. Their difficulty, in turn, will affect people, he said.

“If all the bees and all the insects that pollinated disappeared, you’d have massive chaos in the natural world and to some extent our agricultural system, because we still depend on bugs to help us out,” Droege said. “We still need bugs, these things we just crush without thinking, to keep us alive.”

“People don’t like bugs in their garden, so our world of suburbia is full of chemicals, which are killing bugs,” Gill said. “And often, these chemicals are bad chemicals, and they get into the birds that eat them and kill the birds.”

At 7:29 a.m., it is almost a full hour since the sun began to rise. Nothing is dull anymore, and the sun is fully in the sky. Everything is bright. Nothing seems monotonous. While most trees are biding their time waiting for the perfect conditions to bloom, some appear flush with color, assisted by the illusion of the sun’s full light.

Leaving the woods, a hair dryer hustles in a house, while outside bluebirds flit and flap in a tree. Fat robins dig deep with their plump mates for worms. Long before people are ready to get up on a weekend morning, most birds have had their breakfast and a midmorning snack.

This year, much of the greenery delayed its official declaration of spring due to the cooler temperatures — and no one can yet predict how all of these preparations will shift with a changing climate — but at least on this morning, the birds were ready on time.

Park Benches

By Brain Clark Howard

Cigarette butts are, by some counts, the world’s number one litter problem.

Butts represent the most numerous form of trash that volunteers collect from the world’s beaches on the Ocean Conservancy’s cleanup days. More than two million cigarette parts were recently collected in a single year around the world—double the amount of both food containers and beverage containers.

The hard numbers from some other sources are staggering.

New York state, for instance, produces an estimated 1.5 million tons of cigarette butts a year. And butts account for about 13 percent of the litter accumulated on Texas highways, 130 million butts a year.

The problem extends well beyond the gross factor. Cigarette filters are made from wood-based plastic fibers that take generations to fully decompose, says Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of the New Jersey-based recycling company TerraCycle.

And the filters can leach nicotine and tar into the ground or water.

Butts are also often eaten by birds, fish, and other animals, who can choke on them or be hurt from the poisons they contain.
Most commonly found pieces of trash in the oceans
Volunteers collected and tallied ocean litter on one day during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup in selected spots around the world.

TerraCycle is one of a handful of companies that is working to collect and recycle spent butts, by turning them into plastic lumber that can be used for benches, pallets, and other uses.

Another company, EcoTech Displays, is working on a system to recycle butts into insulation, clothing, and even jewelry.

Governments have also increasingly taken note of the problem, by beginning to enforce littering laws against those who toss their butts or imposing extra taxes on cigarettes to help defray the cost of cleanup, from Maine to San Francisco.

Too Much of a Good Thing

By Jon Erdman

In stark contrast to the dominant pattern early in the year, a stagnant jet stream pattern will continue to deliver locally heavy rain to much of the Plains into Mother’s Day weekend.

Interestingly, this persistently wet outlook is actually both good and bad news in the nation’s heartland.

The upper-level setup for repeated heavy rain through at least the weekend in the nation’s heartland.

Rainfall Forecast Through Monday

Rainfall Forecast Through Monday

Locally heavier rainfall amounts may fall where thunderstorms repeatedly track over a given area.

Bad News: Flood Threat

Monday provided a good example of the threat over the next several days.

Significant flash flooding was reported in Manhattan, Kansas, Lubbock, Texas, and Seagraves, Texas. Monday was the third wettest May day on record in Lubbock (3.42 inches), and Manhattan, Kansas, picked up over 4 inches of rain.

Through the weekend, the jet stream will feature a prominent southward dip in the West and at least a slight northward bulge in the East.

This setup will tap deep Gulf moisture and send it northward through the Plains, and will also send a steady stream of upper-level disturbances providing lift for rain and thunderstorms.

Each day, thunderstorm coverage may be a little more in some parts of the Plains, and a little less in others.

Through next Monday, we expect the corridor of heaviest total rainfall to stretch from parts of Iowa, Nebraska and eastern Colorado to north, central and West Texas. Many of these areas have a high chance of picking up at least 2 inches of rainfall through the period.

However, the potential exists each day for slow-moving thunderstorm clusters to stall in a given area, quickly wringing out several inches of rain in 1-3 hours.

These rapid rain rates may quickly trigger flash flooding, particularly in areas that may have received heavy rain the previous days. Local flash flooding may also occur even in areas that had been rather dry recently.

There is also the threat of severe thunderstorms in this pattern each afternoon and evening through the weekend. For more details on this threat, check out our severe weather tracker page.

We expect this wet pattern to finally clear the Plains by later next Monday or Tuesday, as a cold front finally sweeps through.

Late April/early May Drought Monitor analysis from 2011 through 2015. Brown box denotes area in southern Plains of most persistent drought since 2011.   (USDA/NDMC/NOAA)

Three-month change in the Drought Monitor analysis ending April 28, 2015. Green shading indicates areas where the drought has improved. Yellow and orange shadings indicate areas with worsening drought.  (USDA/NDMC/NOAA)

Good News: Optimal Spring Drought Relief

While California is getting much of the nation’s attention on the drought front, another long-term drought continues in the nation’s heartland.

Parts of the southern and central Plains have been struggling in drought since fall 2010.

According to the Texas Water Development Board, most reservoirs in northwest and west-central Texas, as well as the Texas panhandle, are still running at less than half of capacity.

O.C. Fisher Lake, a secondary drinking water source for San Angelo, Texas, is still at only 0.5 percent of capacity. About 10 other reservoirs in northwest and western Texas are also running at less than 10 percent capacity.

The news isn’t all bad in the Lone Star State. Most reservoir levels generally along and east of I-35 from the Red River to Austin are running at least 80 percent of capacity.

Also, 2015 has been wetter in the southern Plains. Above-average precipitation has fallen in Amarillo, Abilene and San Angelo. Near-average precipitation has been recorded in both Oklahoma City and Wichita Falls, Texas.

While it will likely take at least one, if not multiple wet years to fully recharge still-depleted southern Plains reservoirs, the wet pattern over the next several days is about as lucrative for a short-term drought dent as you can draw up in the middle of spring.

Drought relief is easier to come by in the spring compared to the summer, when the jet stream migrates well to the north, leaving the southern Plains often subject to hot, dry high-pressure aloft, evaporating water from reservoirs.

In the absence of a remnant tropical cyclone, it’s difficult to get widespread, significant drought-denting summer rain in the southern Plains.

Interestingly, a dry winter has left parts of the northern Plains and Upper Midwest in moderate to locally severe drought, according to the April 28 Drought Monitor analysis.

The recent warmth and dry weather has allowed farmers an early start on spring planting. However, rain is needed in parts of the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

While not as high a flood threat, some locally heavy rain is also expected to spread into these areas in the Wednesday-Thursday and weekend timeframes.