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You Call This Hot? 

Fires and floods and smog, oh my!

Wednesday, Jun 27 2001
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Apocalypse junkies take heart, you may not have long to wait. Temperatures are rising, disaster is in sight. Imagine the Santa Monica Pier smashed to driftwood by rising seas, the surf drowning the Venice boardwalk, the old Getty in Malibu slipping its hillside perch and crashing down into the tide pool that was once the PCH. Imagine day after day of unbearable San Fernando Valley heat, but imagine it at the beach, as the Valley comes to feel more and more like Zabriskie Point, with mini-malls. Imagine the new Getty and the Hollywood sign ringed by wildfires; imagine hard because you won’t be able to see them through the resurgent smog. Light a candle for Los Angeles -- light it fast and turn off the lights.

All of those scenarios, fresh from a cliched disaster flick as they may seem, are well within the realm of possibility, according to a new report on the potential effects of global warming on Los Angeles. The report, titled Hot Prospects, was prepared by the New York--based Environmental Defense (until last year known as the Environmental Defense Fund), as part of an effort “to make the global-warming issue less global and more local,” according to Michael Oppenheimer, Environmental Defense‘s chief scientist and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report on global warming.

The Environmental Defense report takes care to emphasize that it offers “scenarios of the future, not predictions,” that it should be read to represent the range of varyingly probable effects of global warming on the region, not as a forecast.

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Those effects include more very hot summer days, more heat waves and a resulting increase in smog; more winter rain, higher seas and increased danger to the coastline; the decline of the existing marine ecosystem as ocean temperatures rise; greater uncertainty about the water supply; and the possibility of more frequent wildfires. Much of this can be avoided, the report stresses, by increasing conservation and decreasing reliance on fossil fuels.

Despite George W. Bush‘s recent claims that the Kyoto Accord is “not based upon science” (which Oppenheimer terms “a complete distortion”), there is little doubt in the scientific community that global warming is occurring -- 1998 was likely the warmest year to hit the Northern Hemisphere in the last millennium -- and that it can be attributed to human activity. Early this month the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report requested by the Bush administration that predicted that “average global surface temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit . . . by the end of this century” and affirmed that the phenomenon is largely due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases generated by the burning of fossil fuels, unhappy news for Bush’s oil-rich cronies. “Two or three degrees may not sound like much,” Oppenheimer says, “but it probably would make the Earth hotter than at any time in the history of civilization” with unpredictable results. If the NAS estimates were correct at the high end, with a rise of over 10 degrees, says Oppenheimer, “it would make the Earth warmer than at any time since dinosaurs were dominant . . . You‘re talking about changes that most scientists believe would be disastrous.”

Of all the scenarios laid out in Hot Prospects, Oppenheimer says, the most certain is that there will be an increase in the number of very hot days and heat waves and a corresponding increase in air pollution, since high temperatures cause the ozone production responsible for smog. “Despite the projections of decreased air pollution and decreased emissions in the future as the Los Angeles area continues to increase its stringency on emissions,” Oppenheimer says, “the gains that would result could be wiped out.” As soon as 2020, there could be twice as many 90-degree days a year. Most at risk are the poor, who suffer disproportionately from respiratory diseases like asthma, and the elderly, who are most vulnerable to extreme heat. By midcentury, the report projects, L.A.’s heat-related mortality could increase 62 percent to 88 percent above current levels. It will provide little comfort to learn, though, that “excess mortality due to heat may be offset somewhat by a decrease in illness and mortality due to fewer extreme cold events in the winter.”

The winters may not be pretty either. Global warming pushes the climate to “more of the extremes,” Oppenheimer says. “There is a general property in projections of global warming that when it‘s dry it’s drier and when it‘s wet it’s wetter.” So if the summers will be hard on the inland poor, the rainy season will tilt the balance against L.A.‘s wealthy, as high seas pound the coast and the rains erode the hills. By the 2080s, the report claims, “the average amount of rain falling every year may more than double,” and sea levels may rise by about 1 foot to almost 3 feet. El Niño seasons, which now occur roughly every four years, may come more and more often. “What we think has the greatest likelihood of happening, although we only have moderate confidence in this particular prediction,” Oppenheimer says, “is you’ll get more and more intense El Niños, and then they‘ll kind of merge into a continuous El Niño state,” until, as the report puts it, “every year would resemble what we currently call an El Niño year.”

In the most recent El Niño year, the winter of 1997-98, heavy rains resulted in 35 California counties being declared federal disaster areas. Piers and oceanfront homes were washed away. “In Ventura County, a landslide ruptured an oil pipeline, releasing 8,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, and severed a natural-gas line, igniting a 100-foot flame.” L.A.’s drainage system proved so ill-equipped to deal with the rains that in Santa Monica Bay, “120 million gallons of urban runoff and wastewater overflows created a plume of polluted water extending six miles offshore and to a depth of 130 feet.” By the beginning of the next century, Environmental Defense warns, such events may accompany the “‘normal’ climatic pattern.”

The warming of the oceans will also have severe effects on the marine ecosystem, likely causing “significant population declines for a wide range of species, including fish, marine mammals, and seabirds, as well as shifts northward in many species‘ traditional ranges.” The financial impact, both on tourism and on commercial fishing, could be enormous. If some species are simply pushed to cooler climes and replaced by others, Oppenheimer adds, “Some of your charismatic species like California sea lions and sea otters may decline or disappear entirely.”

The Environmental Defense report also predicts that global warming will bring “a more variable and uncertain hydrologic future,” i.e., a less secure water supply. Additionally, the combination of thicker undergrowth, produced by high winter rains and increased summer heat, could mean more wildfires. This risk may be offset, Oppenheimer says, if the rains keep the vegetation moist. But what’s bad for humans is good for other critters: The same plants that could provide fuel for fires also provide food for rodents. In past wet years, the increased availability of vegetation, nuts and insects has caused the rodent population to soar as much as tenfold. This, of course, is also bad for humans, and not just because rodents make such poor company: The droppings, urine and saliva of deer mice can carry hantavirus, which is fatal to humans in more than 40 percent of known cases.

Hot Prospects describes a future that doesn‘t have to be. The solution to global warming has long been well-known: reduced reliance on greenhouse-gas-producing carbon fuels through a combination of conservation and a shift to alternative energy sources. The Environmental Defense report adds to these basic recommendations a number of short-term “adaptation strategies,” including everything from planting trees to strengthening emissions controls to improving health care for the poor.

Californians should take the current energy crisis as a wake-up call, Oppenheimer says, and as an opportunity to reverse the warming trend. “Climate policy is energy policy and energy policy is climate policy,” he explains. “The same things that you’re going to do in California this summer to prevent a situation of many, many blackouts from developing are some of the same measures one would take to keep global-warming emissions down.” So dim the lights and trash the SUV, or learn to live with the heat. And the floods. And the hantavirus.

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