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University of Alabama professor awarded grant to study heat waves

Eddie Burkhalter

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Editor’s note: This is an 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 director of the Charles Koch Institute and CEO of the multinational petroleum company Koch Industries.

A University of Alabama assistant professor has received a grant that will help him study the deadly heat waves, which are becoming more frequent and more severe due to climate change. 

David Keellings, a climatologist and assistant professor of geography at The University of Alabama, was in Italy in June attending an outdoor wedding with his wife in over 100 degree weather, just as Europe was experiencing the first of two massive heat waves this summer. 

The couple’s room in a converted farmhouse overlooked an olive grove, but there was no air conditioning.  

“People there are not adapted to it, and this is a big part of what kills people during a heat wave,” Keellings said of the increasingly common heat waves. 

To better understand these heat waves Keellings, with help from researchers at Michigan State University, will use the three-year, $340,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to look closer at how these heat waves have worked historically. 

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“What we’re really trying to do is get what no one has looked at before, is actually the size and shape of heat,” Keellings said. 

Science has known for years that thanks to climate change heat waves are becoming more frequent, hotter and lasting longer, Keellings said, but there’s been no research into whether they’re also covering more ground. 

Keellings published a paper in 2018 that looked at this idea of mapping the size of heat waves. The grant will allow him to further develop the work, which could lead to improved computer modeling and the ability to better predict their size, and what’s happening inside them. 

Imagine James Spann, shirtsleeves rolled up and standing in front of the map, pointing out the moving mass of red and orange and the dreaded polygon.  Heat waves could be mapped similarly, Keellings explained. 

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“So we’re tracking the extent of the heat wave as well as what’s going on within it,” Keellings said. 

Researchers will use historical data to watch those heat waves as they progress from from day to day. Once they know how they work, Keellings said climatologists can better predict them in the future, which can make us better prepared and keep us safer. 

And that’s important, because it’s easy for the public to underestimate the dangers of heat waves, Keellings said. The record high temperature in Tuscaloosa of 108 degrees was set on July 29, 1930, but it’s not enough to look at single-day record highs, he said. The danger also comes from those extended periods of heat. 

Keellings said that during the last 60 years there is a pronounced upward trend in the number of days exceeding 99 degrees in Tuscaloosa. In the last two decades multiple years have greatly exceeded 10 days per year above 99 degrees. 

“During the period from 1960-1999 the average number of days per year with daily maximum temperature exceeding 99 Fahrenheit was around 2,” Keellings wrote in an email to APR. “And in the last two decades the average is now above 5. Days at or above 100 Fahrenheit have in fact more than doubled during the past 60 years and climate projections suggest another doubling in the coming decades.”

The last decade was the warmest on record for the southeast, Keellings said.

Pre-existing medical conditions also make a person much more vulnerable to these heat waves, Keellings said. It’s not just hyperthermia that kills during heat waves. Heart attacks and respiratory failure are common causes of deaths attributed to them, he said. 

A study by the German Research Center for Environmental Health, published in March in the European Heart journal, found that climate change-induced higher temperatures played a part in a higher risk of heart attacks. 

Researchers in the study looked at every heart attack that happened in and around Augsburg, Germany between 1987 and 2014. What they found was that during the hotter portion of that timeline, from 2001 to 2015, the risk of heart attacks increased. 

“Our study suggests that greater consideration should be given to high temperatures as a potential trigger for heart attacks – especially in view of climate change,” said lead researcher Dr. Alexandra Schneider in a press release.  “Extreme weather events, like the 2018 heat waves in Europe, could in future result in an increase in cardiovascular disease.” 

And when it comes to health, it’s the poorest among us who may live with those conditions untreated, Keellings said, which makes them all the more vulnerable to the deadly heat waves. 

“What climate change does, and this is true all around the world, and it’s just as true in the United States, is that the effects of climate change is going to distance the rich and poor even more. It’s going to add to disparities of wealth,” Keellings said.

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Economy

Clean water advocates want a comprehensive water plan for Alabama that creates jobs

Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Environmentalists are optimistic about making progress on water resource issues and the state’s climate change preparedness under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and next Congress, particularly because the president-elect is indicating that economic gains go hand-in-hand with protecting the environment.

“It’s really exciting to see the Biden administration put jobs in the same conversation with their climate and environmental policies, because for too long there has been that false argument that jobs and the environment don’t go together — that you can’t have a regulated business sector and create jobs,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of Alabama Rivers Alliance.

On a recent post-election call with other advocates, Lowry said that the current policy outlook reinforced the importance of voting. There have been some steps forward for conservation during the presidency of Donald Trump, she said, like the president’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act in August, but the administration has prioritized industry interests.

Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.

“We have spent so much time and energy as a movement trying to defend and basically just hold the line against so many of the rollbacks, and now we can focus on moving forward on certain areas,” Lowry said.

Julian Gonzalez, a clean water advocate with the nonprofit Earthjustice in Washington D.C., said on the call that the incoming Congress will be the “most environmentally aware Congress we’ve had.” Still, the real work remains.

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“Everything needs to be one conversation, and you should be able to go call your Congressperson and say, ‘How are you going to fix America’s water problem?’ and they should have an answer, but right now that’s not the case,” Gonzalez said.

For Alabama’s water advocates, priorities are what to do with coal ash, how to prepare for droughts and flooding, improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure and providing relief to communities that have been affected by environmental degradation.

While production of coal ash has reduced due mostly to market-driven decreases in the burning of coal, enough facilities still use it that Alabama is developing its own permitting process and regulations for storing it. The Biden administration can provide leadership on the issue, Lowry said.

While many people associate water issues with drought, Lowry said the topic encompasses much more than that. Pipes that contain lead need to be replaced. There’s plenty of water, she said, but the state needs a comprehensive water plan that prepares communities for drought management, especially as more farmers use irrigation, which uses more water.

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Her organization has been working toward a state plan that can ensure fair access to water without depleting the environment of what it needs to remain stable.

With the increased frequency and intensity of storms being attributed to climate change, water infrastructure will need to be upgraded, Lowry said. Many communities rely on centralized treatment centers to handle their wastewater, and many of those facilities are overburdened and experience spills. Storms and flash floods push old pipes and at-capacity centers past their breaking points — pipes leak or burst and sewage pits overflow.

Lowry said that there has been some progress in recent years on funding infrastructure upgrades in communities and states. It’s a more bipartisan conversation than other environmental issues, and communities that have been hit hard by multiple storms are starting to have new ideas about how to rebuild themselves to better withstand the effects of climate change.

Still, Alabama’s preparedness efforts are all reactionary, which is why a comprehensive water plan is a priority, she said.

“Policies like that — proactive policies that are really forward-thinking about how we will make decisions if we do run into challenges with our environment — are something that this state has not been very strong on,” she said.

Lowry hopes for more emphasis on environmental justice, with official agencies working more with local municipalities to provide relief to communities hurt by pollution and weather events. Such problems are characteristic of the Birmingham area, where Lowry is based, and the Black Belt.

She wants to see stronger permitting processes for industry projects and easier access to funding for cleanups in communities that need them. North Birmingham activists have been trying for years to get a Superfund site there on the Superfund National Priorities List.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address these problems, Lowry said. Having multiple avenues for access to funding is important so that all communities have options. Smaller communities can’t always pay back loans, so they need access to grants.

Lowry emphasized that new jobs must be created without exacerbating climate change. Although Alabama tends to look to heavy industry for economic gains, she said she’s hopeful that a different approach by the Biden administration will trickle to the state level.

Lowry also said that conversations about climate change in Alabama have to be put in terms of what is happening in Alabama.

For her and other environmentalists working in the Deep South, it’s all about relationships and establishing trust. The environment becomes a less partisan issue when you focus on the basics, she said, because everyone wants clean water.

“I’ve found it much more easy to have conversations with elected officials at the state level in places like Alabama, where people do kind of grow up a little closer to nature and conservation, and [by] just kind of meeting people where they are,” Lowry said.

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Environment

Alabama Political Reporter partners with Covering Climate Now

We’re making a commitment to inform you, our readers, about the parts of climate change that are within your spheres of influence.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Covering Climate Now logo

Climate change is a complex and evolving subject. It is often difficult to comprehend on a personal and community level, yet its effects are already being felt on those levels, whether we realize it or not. Climate science researchers project catastrophic consequences for every place and organism on Earth if current trends continue, and most say that humanity is somewhere inside a critical window for action that may prevent the worst.

At Alabama Political Reporter, we believe that within this context, journalism’s role is to make sense of this topic as it relates to our state. Every person on the planet is doing something about climate change for better or for worse, intentionally or not. We’re making a commitment to inform you, our readers, about the parts of it that are within your spheres of influence. APR is excited to announce a partnership with Covering Climate Now (CCN), a global journalism initiative co-founded in 2019, by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, in association with The Guardian. In partnering with CCN, we join more than 400 news outlets globally with a combined audience approaching 2 billion people.

CCN will work with APR as we craft climate coverage stories that will show the real impact those changes are having on communities, as we hold businesses and politicians accountable for how they are addressing climate change — or aren’t — and how poor people and people of color are disproportionately impacted.

Through this partnership, APR‘s stories will be available to a wider audience, and APR will occasionally publish articles from other outlets that are relevant to our readers. Our focus will be projections for our region and prevention.

APR began a more concerted effort to cover climate change during the summer of 2019. Throughout the year, we talked with state experts, such as James McClintock, a professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has spent decades researching climate change. APR looked at how people communicate about climate change, how climate-change-induced heatwaves and stagnation are affecting air quality and how Auburn University planned to use a $3 million grant to fund climate change education.

With a new administration entering the White House in January will come changes in how the federal government addresses the threat of climate change. President-elect Joe Biden’s appointment of former U.S. secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry as special envoy on the climate crisis is a sign that a Biden administration plans to tackle climate change head-on.

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Kerry was instrumental in the international effort to craft the Paris climate agreement, and he will likely approach climate change as a foreign policy issue.

“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry tweeted on Nov. 23.

Biden also recently appointed numerous climate advocates to senior economic leadership positions, including climate change advocate Neera Tanden, as White House budget director. Tandem is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“President-elect Joe Biden has committed to a government-wide strategy to combat the climate crisis — a plan that must start with investing in clean, renewable energy so we can put people back to work,” said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020, a partnership of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. “This team of outspoken advocates for climate innovation and leadership will be meaningful allies for Biden’s vision of immediate and bold climate action on day one of the new administration.”

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With the incoming administration refocusing on the climate crisis, APR believes that it is critical to refocus coverage on a topic that will continue to impact Alabamians for decades, and generations, to come.

We hope that through factual reporting, with a focus on the human impact, APR will give our readers and state leaders better information with which to make decisions that can affect lives and our environment for the better.

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Environment

Pike County Public Fishing Lake will be temporarily closed beginning December 23

During the closure, water levels at the lake will be lowered by approximately 6 feet.

Brandon Moseley

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Pike County Public Fishing Lake (VIA OUTDOOR ALABAMA)

The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries announced this week that it will temporarily close the Pike County Public Fishing Lake near Troy for maintenance beginning Dec. 23, 2020. The lake is expected to be closed for four to six weeks.

During the closure, water levels at the lake will be lowered by approximately 6 feet in an effort to control excessive aquatic plant growth around the bank fishing areas. The lake will be reopened for fishing when the water level reaches full pool.

Until Dec. 23 the lake will be open for all of its normal recreational activities. Alabama is a sportsman’s paradise with year-round freshwater fishing, hunting and saltwater fishing opportunities that the whole family can enjoy.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made many activities including youth sports, sporting events, gyms, concerts, theaters, museums, arcades, roller rinks, parties, dining out and shopping malls too dangerous due to the threat of spreading the virus. The outdoor sports of hunting and fishing allow the whole family to participate while still maintaining social distancing.

Hunting and fishing in Alabama does require a license, but these are available at many different retailers, your county courthouse and online directly from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Lifetime licenses are also available.

Money used from fishing licenses as well as the sale of hunting and fishing gear are used to preserve and protect Alabama’s diverse wildlife resources and their habitats.

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More information about the Pike County Public Fishing Lake is available online.

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. More information is available online about the ADCNR.

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Environment

SNAP recipients approved for additional aid in 20 counties hit by Zeta

Those who qualify automatically get an additional 40 percent of their monthly benefits loaded to their EBT cards. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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A satellite image of Hurricane Zeta approaching the Gulf Coast. (VIA NWS/NOAA)

People living in 20 Alabama counties impacted by Hurricane Zeta who receive food assistance through SNAP will automatically get an additional 40 percent of their monthly benefits loaded to their EBT cards. 

Impacted counties are listed by the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) as: Autauga, Bibb, Butler, Calhoun, Chilton, Clarke, Clay, Cleburne, Coosa, Dallas, Elmore, Lowndes, Mobile, Monroe, Perry, Randolph, Shelby, Talladega, Tallapoosa and Wilcox.

“Many of Alabama’s families most in need are facing tremendous challenges putting food on the table in the aftermath of Hurricane Zeta. Offering a helping hand in the form of these replacement benefits will prevent hunger and ease their financial burden at an especially difficult time,” said DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner in a statement. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service approved the additional benefits Sunday at the request of DHR, according to a press release from the department. The additional benefits are meant to replace food lost during the widespread power outages when the storm struck in late October.

Those who receive SNAP benefits and who live in counties not listed above, and who were without power for more than four hours following the hurricane, can request replacement benefits by visiting their local DHR office to complete an Affidavit of Loss to determine replacement eligibility.

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