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Heat, stagnation: Impact of climate change in Alabama

Eddie Burkhalter

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Editor’s note: This is the third installment in APR’s yearlong series on climate change in Alabama. Eddie Burkhalter is a staff writer at Alabama Political Reporter and a fellow at the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. The program is a partnership between the Poynter Institute and the Charles Koch Institute. Charles G. Koch is chairman of the board of the Charles Koch Institute and CEO of the multinational petroleum company Koch Industries.

With summers getting hotter, more U.S. cities are seeing longer periods of stagnant air and worsening air quality, according to experts. 

A study by the nonprofit news outlet Climate Central published July 24 compared the average summer maximum temperatures to the average number of stagnant days during the summer. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s air stagnation index uses upper atmospheric winds, surface winds and precipitation to calculate the daily level of stagnation, which can trap air pollutants over an area, worsening breathing problems. 

Since NOAA began monitoring air stagnation in 1973 Birmingham’s number of stagnant summer days increased 254 percent, from 11 days annually to 39 days in 2018, according to the study. During that time the average annual summer maximum temperature in Birmingham rose from 87 degrees to 92 degrees. 

“Since 1973, 98 percent of the cities analyzed show a positive correlation between summer high temperatures and the number of summer stagnant days,” according to the study. 

As the climate continues to warm, stagnant days are projected to increase further, with up to 40 more days per year by late-century, according to a separate study by Stanford University published in 2014. 

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“Considering the strong links between air stagnation, air quality and public health impacts, our results suggest that continued increases in greenhouse gas concentrations are likely to alter the atmosphere in ways that impact efforts to protect public health,” the Stanford University study’s authors note. 

Chandana Mitra, associate professor of geosciences at Auburn University, teaches on climatology and climate change. 

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“One of my areas of research is urban heat and how it impacts humans,” Mitra recently told APR by phone. 

As we transform natural habitats into steel and concrete cityscapes, those areas absorb and emit more of the sun’s energy as heat, Mitra said. 

“And heat is a very important component in any science equation, which can influence every single other component within that equation,” Mitra said. 

Some of the heat absorbed by those steel and concrete cityscapes isn’t immediately emitted back into the atmosphere, Mitra said, but rather stored, which can cause “urban heat islands.” Those heat islands, coupled with prolonged heatwaves, can have deadly results, she said especially for the elderly, children and low-income residents with inadequate air-conditioning. 

Record heat waves this year swept across Europe, South Asia and the Middle East. The United Kingdom’s national weather service Met Office on Monday announced that the UK saw its hottest day on record last Thursday.  Belgium, the Netherlands and France all also say records highs last week. 

At least 11 people in Japan died in Japan last week due to an unexpected heat wave, while another 5,6oo were sent to hospitals for treatment, according to the Kyodo new agency. 

A heat wave blanketed a third of the population of the U.S. earlier in July, breaking one-day temperature records in numerous cities and causing at least six deaths in Maryland, Arizona and Arkansas according to news accounts. 

According to NOAA extreme heat causes more deaths in the U.S. than hurricanes and floods combined, more than twice as as tornadoes and four times as many as from extreme cold.

Mitra said the cause of the increasing global temperatures and longer and stronger heat waves is global warming, and that it needs to be addressed quickly. 

“This is something very unprecedented and we’re not prepared to deal with it,” Mitra said. 

Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, is a world-renowned expert on arctic climate change impacts. 

“Of course, heatwaves are nothing new, but recent studies suggest they’re getting hotter and lasting longer,” Francis wrote in an email to APR on Wednesday. 

Francis said new findings show that the persistence of heatwaves and other events such as droughts and prolonged rains are the result of so-called blocking events and large northward swings in the jet stream called ridges. 

“Blocks occur when the jet stream takes such a large and sharp northward bulge that a big swirl breaks off in the upper levels, just like an eddy in a river,” Francis said. 

Once those blocks form they tend to stick around for days or weeks, preventing weather systems east and west of them from moving, she said. 

A block currently parked over Greenland is keeping weather patterns across North America from moving eastward, Francis said, including the big ridge over the western two-thirds of the US. 

“This pattern is causing the persistent high-pressure area that tends to trap pollution near the surface and deteriorate air quality,” Francis said. 

Asked if we can expect our summers to continue getting hotter, and heat waves to continue on for longer periods, Francis said yes. 

“Unless we can find a way to drastically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. The extra heat trapped by these gases — that come mostly from burning coal, oil and gas — is the underlying cause of these stronger heatwaves,” Francis said. “Any reduction in our emissions will slow their intensification, but we need to act boldly and soon.”

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Plume site under downtown Montgomery removed from EPA superfund priority list

Josh Moon

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Downtown Montgomery (STOCK PHOTO)

A toxic plume that formed underneath several blocks of downtown Montgomery is being removed from the EPA’s superfund priority list after years of cleanup efforts have reduced the threat to the public, the agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management announced on Wednesday. 

Known as the Capital City Plume, the 50-block area of contaminated groundwater and soil covered much of downtown Montgomery and required millions of dollars in remediation costs. The city, county and a coalition of downtown businesses took control of the site in 2015, in an agreement with the EPA, and sped up cleanup efforts. 

The site was first discovered in 1993 and the EPA took control shortly thereafter, but very little remediation occurred because the agency could not definitively identify businesses that were responsible for the contamination.

The city’s agreement with EPA put to rest the issue of responsibility and allowed for a shared responsibility that apparently resulted in faster cleanup. 

“This is validation of all the hard work by many parties – city, county, state, federal and business entities – over many years to address and resolve a real environmental challenge,” said ADEM Director Lance LeFleur. “It couldn’t have happened without all the parties deciding we needed a plan to tackle the problem and agreeing to work together to carry it out. Now, this area of downtown Montgomery that has already seen significant redevelopment and reuse can blossom even more.”

The removal of the site from the National Priorities List should also remove burdensome and costly testing that hampered additional growth in many areas of downtown Montgomery. 

“This announcement charts a path forward for our community and is essential to our vision for a stronger, more vibrant downtown core,” Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said. “We commend the collaboration and steady resolve of the Alliance, ADEM, the EPA and everyone involved in doing what is right for our city and our region. Moving forward, we are committed to continue building on this success as we expand economic opportunity and progress in Montgomery.”

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The Downtown Alliance, as the collection of businesses, city, county and state government entities was known, was the brainchild of former Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange and attorneys negotiating with the EPA. At the time, it was a first-of-its-kind agreement.

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Alabama Power extends summer pool on Lake Martin into fall

Brandon Moseley

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(ALABAMA TOURISM DEPARTMENT)

Last week, Alabama Power announced that it is extending the summer pool on Lake Martin into fall, allowing more boating and recreational opportunities than would be possible if the implementation of the winter drawdown began last Tuesday as scheduled.

Hydro Services manager Jim Crew said that the fall extension is granted because water is plentiful throughout the Tallapoosa and Coosa river basins and conditions are met at Alabama Power dams across the system.

Until Oct. 15, Lake Martin’s water level will remain at 491 feet mean sea level. After that date, the level gradually will be drawn down to 484 feet mean sea level by the third week of November. The seasonal drawdown has several advantages, the most important of which is flood prevention. The winter pool level provides storage space in the reservoir system for spring rains.

At the local level, the lower water allows repairs and improvements to docks that are underwater during the summer. The drawdown also allows more access to the lake bottom during winter cleanup efforts and assists in the control of some invasive weed species along the shoreline as well.

Alexander City Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ed Collari said that extending the summer pool level offers economic benefits to Lake Martin communities that provide services to part-time lake residents and visitors.

“Economically, that’s great news for our community,” Collari said. “The increased lake levels will allow people to continue to enjoy the lake into the fall. We’ve seen already this year what having people here around the lake will do, as that’s reflected in our community sales tax levels. The higher water level will encourage people to spend more time in our communities.”

Alabama Power is licensed to operate Martin Dam and manage the reservoir. The license stipulates Sept. 1 as the drawdown commencement date unless four specific criteria are met, indicating that the system of reservoirs on the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers contains enough water to maintain navigation levels downstream.

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The conditional fall extension of the summer pool is new to the licensing terms for Lake Martin. It was not included in license terms of Alabama Power’s earlier licenses, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission added it to the license issued in December 2015 after the lake community overwhelmingly argued for it.

Analysis of data at that time indicated the fall extension could be expected to occur about once every four years; however, this is the third year since the license has been in effect the fall extension has been granted.

Rainfall has been far above average in the Lake Martin area this year. Normal precipitation for the period of January through August is just under 39 inches, but more than 54 inches of rain have fallen in the lake area so far, according to the National Weather Service.

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Alabama Power representatives urge boaters to enjoy the extension of summer safely.

Individuals with boats and other water-related equipment and facilities should always be alert to changing conditions on Alabama Power reservoirs and be prepared to take the necessary steps to protect their properties.

Manmade lakes across Alabama provide fishing, boating and recreational opportunities to people across Alabama. It also provides habitat for wildlife including ducks, geese, turtles and many other water birds including seagulls.

The lakes provide plenty of cheap, renewable electric power through the hydro-electric dams Alabama Power operates while increasing shoreline habitat and flood control.

For more information about Alabama Power lakes, download the new Smart Lakes app or visit apcshorelines.com. You can call 800-525-3711 for lake condition updates.

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Alabama fishermen will get extra red snapper days in October

The additional days will begin at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, and run until midnight on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced Friday that after completing a review of the 2020 private angler red snapper season that ended July 3, 2020, they determined that three additional days can be added to the private angler recreational season. The additional days will begin at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, and run until midnight on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

The additional red snapper fishing days apply to state of Alabama waters as well as federal waters adjacent to Alabama. The limit will be two fish per angler with a 16-inch total length minimum size.

ADCNR’s Marine Resources Division reviewed landing estimates derived from angler reports submitted through Alabama’s Snapper Check system and determined that additional days are available in order to achieve the 2020 red snapper quota.

“The 2020 private angler season started out with record setting fishing effort,” said MRD director Scott Bannon. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made outdoors recreation more important than ever, and that showed during this year’s red snapper season. That higher level of early season effort ultimately led to the closure on July 3. It is important to our fishermen to provide access to this resource, and our goal is to fish the quota we’ve been given by NOAA Fisheries. We are excited to offer these additional days in October to harvest more red snapper and still stay within our quota.”

Bannon said that the preliminary harvest numbers for the private recreational sector indicate about 100,000 pounds remain in the quota of 1,122,622 pounds. The red snapper season for private recreational anglers, which includes state charter vessels, was supposed to have originally lasted 35 days, beginning the Friday of Memorial Day weekend; however, state regulators cut the season to just 25 days when they noticed an uptick in the number of boats on the water this year compared to previous years.

“The private recreational angler season went really well even though we closed a little earlier than we anticipated,” Bannon said. “The data showed a tremendous number of people took advantage of the season, especially with the opening earlier on May 22.”

Bannon said that the MRD detected a significant uptick in angler participation this year when they analyzed the data.

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“The average vessel trips for the season were 713 trips per day,” Bannon said. “That means a lot of people went fishing compared to the last two years, which had an average of about 530 vessel trips per day.”

Bannon believes that the coronavirus crisis was a major factor in more Alabamians going fishing this year.

“I think people took advantage to go snapper fishing when they could not participate in other activities,” Bannon said. “They could not get on cruise ships. They couldn’t go to Disney. People were not playing travel sports. Boating was considered a safe outdoor activity, so I do think the COVID-19 pandemic affected the snapper season. I think it prompted more people to go snapper fishing than we had in the past.”

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Detailed red snapper landing information is available online. Red snapper is arguably the most desired fish for saltwater fishermen to take home for the freezer. Consequentially the species is prone to overfishing. Limits on red snapper are designed to prevent the fish from being overfished.

Saltwater anglers, as well as freshwater anglers and hunters, may renew their hunting and fishing licenses beginning today.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

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Gov. Kay Ivey: State preparing for approaching storms

Eddie Burkhalter

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An NOAA satellite image shows the two storms in the Atlantic and Caribbean. (NOAA/NHC)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday said that the state was preparing for the potential of two storm systems that could impact the coast, and possibly on the same day the state is to hold municipal elections. 

 Tropical Storm Laura and Tropical Depression 14 could both be in the Gulf at the same time, and both are expected to become hurricanes before they approach the Gulf coast, with Laura possibly impacting Alabama’s coastline on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. Alabama’s municipal elections are set for Tuesday, Aug. 25. 

“The Alabama Gulf Coast is no stranger to the unpredictability and potentially damaging effects of tropical weather. As we continue keeping a close watch on the storm systems approaching the United States, we should do what we can now to be prepared, should Alabama receive impact from either of the two systems we are currently monitoring,” Ivey said in a statement. 

 “Currently, one system has the potential to have a direct hit to our Coast and possibly on the same day as municipal elections. Until we feel more certain about an imminent threat of dangerous weather, we will not make changes to the elections at this time. However, we are having discussions and making preparations, should we decide that moving the election or making any adjustments is necessary. We will be prepared to act quickly and effectively. My team and I are staying in close contact with emergency managers and local officials, and we will continue closely monitoring the approaching tropical systems, Ivey continued. 

 “Alabamians must remember that even amidst this health pandemic, if there is a threat for damaging weather, getting yourself and your family to a place of safety takes precedent. Do what you can to protect yourself from the virus. Wear a mask, sanitize and social distance if possible, but please follow your local weather forecasts, and stay weather aware.”

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