Bulletin: Battle over geothermal project pits tiny toad against renewable energy

Dixie Meadows is a smudge of vibrant green in an otherwise muted pink and tan landscape. To travel there from Fallon, Nevada, the nearest city, one must first drive 40 miles east on US Route 50, a stretch of highway known as the “loneliest road in America,” and then another 40 miles north on a gravel road into Dixie Valley, a low-lying plain between the Stillwater Range and the Clan Alpine Mountains. Desert shrubs extend as far as the eye can see, until a shimmer of water appears on the horizon—the first sign of a desert oasis. Fed by a series of over 100 seeps and springs, these 760 lush acres at the foot of the Stillwater mountains encompass the entire global range of the endangered Dixie Valley toad. They are also a “surface expression,” as geologists put it, of an as-yet untapped geothermal energy source.

Wearing a straw cowboy hat and using a wooden staff as a walking stick, Patrick Donnelly leads the way into Dixie Meadows’ shoulder-high reeds, where we hope to find the smallest of the western toads. As the Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity, Donnelly campaigned to get the Dixie Valley toad listed as endangered, which the Fish and Wildlife Service did in April on an emergency basis for only the second time in the past 20 years. Donnelly has also worked tirelessly to halt the progress of the largest threat to the Dixie Valley toad and the green oasis it calls home: the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Project. Donnelly is concerned that if the geothermal project proceeds as planned, it will disturb or even dry up the series of hot springs that have created this verdant oasis.

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The geothermal moonshot

Many experts believe the future of geothermal energy lies in enhanced geothermal systems, which lack some of the natural characteristics needed to produce electricity from the Earth’s heat but may be used as geothermal energy sources with the right human interventions. Proper development of enhanced systems would drastically expand the potential for geothermal energy’s role in the US energy system.

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Audubon: The Foraged Wood Thrush

Like so many others, artist Jessica Maffia took refuge in nature in the earliest days of the pandemic. “I’d been thinking about our local nature for some years, but during quarantine, that’s all I wanted to do,” she says. “I wasn’t making art for a long time—I was just coming and getting to know who the more-than-human neighbors are.”

Although she took part in her first guided bird walk in 2016, it was only in the spring of 2020 that she began birding more seriously, taking classes on birdsong—Maffia can now identify more than two dozen birds by ear—and patch birding, revisiting the same place and learning its avian residents and visitors. Since then, Maffia has embraced Inwood Hill Park in uptown Manhattan as her patch. That’s where I reached her by video call in May, her face framed by trees, the birdsong in the background as clear as her voice. “I’m finding that my nature enthusiasm and art practice are very much merging,” Maffia says.

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Bulletin: How to not die from heat on a too-hot planet

Glen Kenny usually knows when someone is about to succumb to heat. He’s seen it a thousand times.

Workers may become less responsive than usual. They might struggle to stay focused on the task at hand, or forget to follow safety protocols. They might be short-tempered or aggressive when someone interrupts them. They might tell someone to back off, to leave them alone.

“Their body is under stress,” says Kenny, a professor of physiology at the University of Ottawa who studies the human heat stress response. “And for them, any voices, any distraction, that takes away their focus on themselves becomes an irritation for them. So you’re going to see irritability, you’re going to see loss of awareness of their surroundings, an inability to communicate effectively, all these become critical signs.”

The scary thing is, by the time an individual starts to feel unwell, they are already in the danger zone. Unlike strenuous exercise, heat stress is gradual. It builds, often without the individual noticing it—until all of a sudden, he or she does.

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‘Silent killer’: A Bulletin series on surviving the extremely hot future 

It’s getting hot out here.

Earlier this month, at least 10 cities in Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas broke high-temperature records, some by as much as six degrees Fahrenheit. Last week, Texas officials asked residents and businesses to conserve electricity during the hottest times of the day to help avoid overwhelming the grid, as temperatures climbed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching 113 degrees in Somerville, a small town about an hour’s drive northwest of Houston.

Significant parts of England and Wales are under a heat warning until Tuesday, and temperatures in London today are forecast to climb above 90 degrees Fahrenheit—about 18 degrees hotter than usual this time of year. The United Kingdom will be one of the hottest places on earth today, reaching temperatures more commonly seen in the Western Sahara and the Caribbean. Temperatures in Portugal and Spain soared to triple digits last week as wildfires ripped through both countries. The heat wave that has engulfed Western Europe could last for weeks; meteorologists say it could be the worst Europe has seen since 1757.

China, too, issued alerts to residents of nearly 70 cities as temperatures rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit last week. According to a state news agency, Shanghai has only experienced temperatures greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit on 15 days since 1873. Last month was the warmest June on record in 60 years. Roofs have melted and roads have buckled in the heat.

And this is all happening nearly simultaneously—the new normal, brought on by global warming.

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