Texas Gulf wetlands face population, development challenges
By KATHRYN EASTBURN
The Galveston County Daily News
Friday, February 1
GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — To a motorist, zipping south through Galveston County from Houston to Galveston Island, the surrounding landscape might look like a whole lot of nothing — flat land, scrubby grass and frontage roads edging up to open prairie.
The Galveston County Daily News reports only the occasional sight of a seabird landing among tall grasses might warrant a glance.
John Jacob, a geoscientist with the state of Texas, professor at Texas A&M University and widely recognized expert on wetlands of the upper Texas Gulf Coast, calls the phenomenon “the burden of flat land.”
“If you live, say, in Colorado and somebody went out to the Garden of the Gods and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to build a strip mall here,’ everybody would say you were crazy,” Jacob said. “It’s very difficult here to engender enthusiasm for the wetlands we drive by and don’t really see.”
Jacob raises a central predicament facing Galveston County as it inherits more and more of the spillover from Houston, creating a population boom that demands more residential developments. Add to that industrial development along the Houston Ship Channel and agricultural land giving way to all types of development.
The result, inevitably, is displacement of wetlands — areas of land inundated by water either seasonally or most of the time, including that nondescript prairie, those puddles and that tall grass.
Those lands may not look like much to the elevated human eye, but they host critical ecosystems that serve many essential functions in our coastal environment.
Jacob and others see gold in the remaining wetlands of Galveston County — prairie pothole and pimple mound complexes on the mainland, brackish marshes on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula and seagrass marshes along Galveston Bay.
Among the services they provide, just by being there, are water filtration, drainage capacity that can often prevent flooding in adjacent areas, habitat for wildlife and breeding grounds for fish and shellfish.
For many who long for a life along the water, wetlands are the unseen parts of the land that hold everything else — birds, fish and clean water — in place.
But because their value has been historically underestimated and they often are overlooked as important natural resources, wetlands in the county are endangered at a time when we need them most, experts warn.
In some areas, wetlands have disappeared at a rate difficult to fathom.
As much as 70 percent of seagrasses in salt marshes along Galveston Bay has been lost since the 1950s because of subsidence, sinking land caused by groundwater withdrawal for industrial and residential use, according to the Houston Advanced Research Center, a not-for-profit university consortium oilman George P. Mitchell helped establish as a technology incubator to bridge basic research and market applications.
When coastal fringe areas lost elevation along the bay, because of shrinking underground aquifers, the water surface area increased, essentially depriving seagrasses of light and oxygen, thus depleting them.
Inland in the county, League City and Dickinson are seeing significant urban expansion and agricultural areas being sold and converted to housing developments, many of them atop remaining freshwater wetlands that are drained, filled in and paved over, reducing the landscape’s natural capacity to mitigate flooding.
Forested wetlands, primarily in Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, have been inundated with invasive species such as Chinese tallow or privet, inhibiting their natural abilities for drainage and flood protection.
Along the lower Galveston Bay watershed, an estimated 3 percent of freshwater wetlands were lost to development between 1992 and 2002, with Harris County, just to the north, losing at least 13 percent of its wetlands in the same period, according to the research center.
On Galveston Island, residential developments track right up to the water’s edge on both the bay and beach sides of the island, displacing wetlands and impairing their ability to migrate and replace themselves.
None of this is a new phenomenon.
The majority of wetlands destruction in the United States occurred in the middle of the 20th century, and by the mid-1980s, nearly half of Texas wetlands had been destroyed either naturally or by human intervention, Rice University Professor John Anderson reported in his 2007 book, “Formation and Future of the Upper Texas Coast.”
The modern Clean Water Act of 1972, the federal government framework for protecting American waters from pollution and, by association, protecting wetlands, changed the pace of that loss and made more people aware of their value in the environment.
But with a burgeoning regional population increase, growing development pressures, relative sea level rise — the measure of land subsidence combined with rising seas caused by global climate change — and the White House threatening to weaken federal protections for wetlands, the cumulative impact of wetlands loss in Galveston County has reached what many consider to be a critical tipping point if left unaddressed.
When Hurricane Harvey hovered over the Houston-Galveston area for five days in 2017, dropping as much as 50 inches of rain in parts of Galveston County and causing catastrophic flooding, much of that water had no place to go. Thousands of acres of existing wetlands along bayous had long been drained, filled and paved to make way for roads, houses and businesses.
Had wetlands been retained, there still would have been considerable flooding but not to the degree that made Harvey a $125 billion disaster, Jacob said.
Now, a week doesn’t go by that a municipality in Galveston County doesn’t seek more funding to start a new drainage project or to implement a flood prevention plan, while all around them, wetlands are being sucked up or ignored as a natural part of the solution.
What would happen if we succeeded at removing them all?
More flooding and less fish, Jacob argues.
“The effect of losing freshwater wetlands, like those on the mainland of Galveston County, would be an immediate decrease in water quality,” Jacob said. “The number-one thing they do is clean the water. They are the kidneys of the Earth.”
The worse the water quality, the less fish will breed in area waters.
The grasses on those freshwater wetlands clean water through their stems, and they have a biochemical effect on water called denitrification, Jacob said.
“They can remove 99 percent of nitrates in the water, and we get a lot of those around here because the rain falling on us is picking them up from the air,” he said.
An estimated 98 percent of all commercial fish and shellfish depend upon wetlands in either their life cycle or as part of their food chain, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the Galveston area, losing wetlands means losing fish populations that support recreation for humans and enrich businesses and local economies.
Regarding flooding, wetlands act as a sponge, trapping and slowly releasing excess floodwaters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges this important function in its wetlands factsheet: “Wetlands function as natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water, rain, snowmelt, groundwater and flood water. Trees, root mats and other wetland vegetation also slow the speed of flood waters and distribute them more slowly over the floodplain.
“Preserving and restoring wetlands together with other water retention can often provide the level of flood control otherwise provided by expensive dredge operations and levees.”
With plans moving forward for a $30 billion coastal spine to protect the Houston-Galveston area from future storm-generated disasters, consideration of the flood mitigation value of existing wetlands ought to be a high priority, experts say. The plan currently being circulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acknowledges that putting up levees and walls could have an adverse effect on area wetlands and compensates with a provision of millions of dollars for their restoration.
Meanwhile, the destruction of wetlands marches on, across the coastal plains all the way to Galveston Island.
Sections of the Clean Water Act are under review by the Trump administration, which announced on Dec. 11 it plans to change the definition of “Waters of the United States” to exclude wetlands not adjacent to or connected by surface water to other bodies of water. That would include many freshwater wetlands on the coastal plain in Galveston County.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with enforcing existing laws protecting wetlands but doesn’t regulate building on those freshwater wetlands now, adhering instead to a definition of wetlands that lie within floodplains or that have a bed and banks connection, like the marshes along Galveston Bay, Jacob said.
Unlike many states, Texas provides no regulations against building on wetlands.
Many wetlands protection activists in the Galveston County area agree that federal support is dwindling for regulation, including providing enough personnel to the corps to keep up with needed wetland mitigation permits, according to the Houston Advanced Research Center.
All of this makes the complicated problem of protecting and restoring wetlands even more complicated.
“Once you build on a wetland, it’s never going to be the same,” Jacob said. But protecting the wetlands that remain is essential, he said.
“The question I would ask is if wetlands are the kidneys of the Earth, would you rather have one good kidney or two bad kidneys?”
Information from: The Galveston County Daily News, http://www.galvnews.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Galveston County Daily News
Steaming lakes and thundersnow: 4 questions answered about weird winter weather
February 1, 2019
Author: Scott Denning, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University
Disclosure statement: Scott Denning receives funding from the US Department of Energy and NASA.
Partners: Colorado State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Editor’s note: Extreme cold weather can produce unusual phenomena, from so-called sea smoke to slushy ocean waves. As atmospheric scientist Scott Denning explains, these striking events are caused mainly by the behavior of water at very cold temperatures.
Why do lake and ocean waters appear to steam during cold snaps?
There are three phases, or states, of water: solid ice, liquid water and gaseous water vapor. Even in extremely cold weather, liquid water can’t be colder than the freezing point – about 32 degrees Fahrenheit – so the surface of the ocean is much warmer than the air above it.
A lot of water evaporates from the warmer ocean into the colder dry air above. As soon as this invisible gas rises even just a little bit above the relatively warm water, it hits air that is much colder and can’t hold much vapor, so the vapor condenses into microscopic droplets of liquid water in the air.
Some people call the wispy clouds caused by condensation just above the winter ocean or lakes “sea smoke.” That’s a better term than steam. Real steam is very hot water vapor – that is, water in its gas phase, which is invisible.
Weather watchers seem to get very excited about thundersnow. What is it and why is it rare?
Thunder is a sonic boom created when a lightning bolt causes the air to expand faster than the speed of sound. Lightning is formed by sparks of static electricity between the clouds and ground. The friction that forms this static is usually caused by rapidly rising “thermals” of buoyant air on hot summer days, which is why thunderstorms are common in summer.
Air can’t rise from the cold winter ground because cold air is dense, so thunder in winter is pretty unusual. Thundersnow happens when really cold air blows in from up north. This cold air is denser than the air at the surface, so it literally falls down, pushing surface air up over the top of it. This can create exactly the same kind of static charge as a summer thunderstorm, and BOOM – thundersnow! This only happens with a really dramatic change in temperature, such as the approach of an Arctic cold front.
How common is it for the oceans to freeze outside of the polar regions?
Saltwater has a lower freezing point than fresh water, which is why we put salt on our streets and sidewalks to melt ice in winter. Seawater is salty enough that it has to get really cold to freeze – around 28 F. It’s pretty unusual for seawater to freeze in the continental United States, though it happens all the time in the Arctic winter.
When seawater freezes, most of its salt is pushed down into the ocean water underneath it. This is why people in the Arctic can melt sea ice for drinking water. As little bits of freshwater ice form at the ocean’s surface, the remaining water gets saltier and saltier, so it gets harder and harder for it to freeze.
But sometimes when it’s been extremely cold, little ice floes form at the surface of the ocean. Waves break them up, so that the surface can become like a wavy slurpee. For anyone willing to brave the cold, it’s wild to stand by the shore and watch the smoking slushy sea with its slow-motion surf. At the poles, it’s so cold that floating ice crystals eventually converge and solidify into sea ice.
Scientists have found that Mars has snowfalls too. How are they different from snow on Earth?
The atmosphere on Mars is nearly pure carbon dioxide, which we know as the main greenhouse gas that’s driving climate change here on Earth. But Mars’ atmosphere is much thinner than ours, so it doesn’t trap much heat. On a nice Martian summer day, temperatures can reach 70 F and then fall to minus 100 F the same night.
Winters are even colder there. It gets so cold in polar winters on Mars that the air itself freezes, making tiny carbon dioxide snowflakes the size of red blood cells, which pile deep enough to make polar caps of dry ice.
During the long polar night, around one-third of Mars’ entire atmosphere falls as snow. This makes a partial vacuum, sucking the winds from the planet’s summer hemisphere to its winter hemisphere to make up the difference. In spring, these planet-scale winds reverse direction as the dry ice turns back to gas and starts to fall out on the other end of Mars.
Further out in the solar system, the “ice giant” planets and many of their moons have huge amounts of water and carbon dioxide ice – much larger quantities than all of our oceans. But on Earth, dry ice can’t form above minus 110 F. So there will never be carbon dioxide snow on our planet – just frozen water in all of its many forms.
Air pollution may be affecting how happy you are
January 30, 2019
Author: Peter Howley, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Leeds
Disclosure statement: Peter Howley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Leeds provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.
For decades now, GDP has been the standard measure of a nation’s well-being. But it is becoming clear that an economic boost may not be accompanied by a rise in individual happiness.
While there are many reasons for this, one important factor is that as nations become richer, environmental features such as green space and air quality often come under increasing threat. The mental health benefits of access to parks or waterfronts, for instance, have long been recognised but more recently researchers have also started to look at the role air pollution can play in our general mental health and happiness.
With more tangible outcomes such as health, cognitive performance or labour productivity, the adverse effects of poor air are significant and well-established. The link to infant mortality and respiratory disease is well known, and the World Health Organisation estimates that around 7m deaths are attributable to air pollution each year.
But while many people will die and many more will acquire a chronic health condition, focusing on objective indicators such as these may still understate the true welfare cost. This is because there is now good evidence of a direct link between air quality and overall mental health and happiness.
Evidence from all over the world
This evidence comes from a diverse array of studies in different countries and using different analytical approaches. The most compelling of these studies track the same people over time, and find that changes in the air quality in these people’s neighbourhoods are related to changes in their self-reported happiness.
One particularly innovative study looked at what happened when large power plants in Germany were fitted with equipment designed to reduce emissions. Researchers had access to happiness data from a long-term survey of a panel of around 30,000 Germans, and categorised everyone by whether they lived upwind or downwind of a power plant (or nowhere near).
The research found that those downwind underwent a significant improvement in their happiness levels after the installation, while their upwind neighbours did not benefit. This sort of comparison – a natural experiment that would be impossible and perhaps unethical to replicate in a lab – helps to ensure that the improvement in happiness was due to the improvement in air quality as opposed to other factors.
Economists and scientists are continually on the lookout for new ways to test the association. One example, recently published in Nature Human Behaviour, comes from China. Researchers looked at the sentiment expressed in 210m geotagged messages on the microblog platform Sina Weibo (a Chinese equivalent to Twitter). Given they knew where these tweets had been sent from, and how happy or sad they were, the researchers were then able to match the tweets to a daily local air quality index, providing a real-time connection between air pollution and happiness. Analysing data from 144 Chinese cities, they found that self-reported happiness was significantly lower on days with relatively higher pollution levels.
This study adds to a pile of research which suggests that air pollution can be detrimental to happiness – but we still need more research on why this is. While health is undoubtedly a factor, we know from studies that control for health status that air pollution affects happiness over and above any indirect effects on physical condition. Some possible reasons for the direct link include aesthetics such as haze, smell and even taste, as well as anxiety about personal health or the health of others. Air pollution has also been a focus of several studies on cognitive impairment, but it is still too early to say if it really plays a role in brain health.
Improving the well-being of citizens remains an obvious and important aim of public policy. To date, the principal focus has been on material well-being but many social scientists and indeed policy makers now argue that we need to take account of how people think and feel about the quality of their life. This is not to ignore material factors like income or physical health. Rather, a comprehensive picture of societal well-being needs to integrate objective indicators with subjective measures like happiness. Doing so will help ensure that we take account of the total cost of environmental degradation such as air pollution. And we will all be better off as a result.
Convictions issued over Hungary sludge flood that killed 8
By PABLO GORONDI
Monday, February 4
BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Two former executives of an alumina plant in Hungary were convicted and sentenced to prison Monday for an industrial disaster that killed eight people and injured more than 220 in flooded towns and villages, a Hungarian court said.
Zoltan B., the former CEO of MAL Zrt., received a prison term of 2 ½ years for public endangerment and other crimes, while Jozsef D., a deputy CEO, received a two-year sentence.
In keeping with privacy rules, the court did not identify the defendants by their full names.
On Oct. 4, 2010, a wall of a huge reservoir of the plant collapsed, flooding three towns and villages with about 2 million cubic meters (528 million gallons) of toxic red sludge and water.
The highly alkaline mix burned the skin of the victims, some of whom were swept away by the force of the rushing flood and drowned. One of the victims was 14-months-old.
Eight other people on trial for the 2010 disaster received suspended prison sentences, fines or reprimands, while the city court in Gyor acquitted five. All 15 defendants were acquitted of all charges in 2016, but an appeals court ordered a retrial.
The trial court ruled that MAL Zrt. managers and employees broke numerous rules regarding the storage and handling of the leftover sludge and water from producing alumina, the main raw material for making aluminum.
“The defendants’ negligence contributed to the catastrophe, since they did not deal with the warning signs of a possible breach,” the court said in a statement. “And they misled area residents and authorities regarding the true amount and toxicity of water accumulated due to the rule violations, which ultimately became determinant factors of the catastrophe.”
The court also said the defendants did not notify authorities or were late doing so regarding the sludge flood and its toxicity. The former CEO also made willfully misleading statements about the dangers of the spill, the court found.
The amount of water stored in the 25-hectare (61.8-acre) reservoir, over 1 million cubic meters (264 million gallons), was more than twice the limit and its toxicity exceeded the permissible level.
In its ruling Monday, the court also faulted poor planning, construction and maintenance of the reservoir.