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May 2020, Volume 26, Number 2

Climate: Fires, Locusts

Australia had its worst wildfires in decades in January-February 2020. Over 16 million acres burned in New South Wales and Victoria, including two million in the Gospers Mountain fire, which involved several fires combining into a megafire. By comparison, California’s 2018 fires burned two million acres, and the September 2019 fires in the Amazon burned 2.2 million acres.

High temperatures, strong winds and dry forests fuel Australian fires that are often caused by lightning strikes. Australia’s summer fires are some of the largest in populated areas, a contrast to northern Canada and Siberia, where large fires in unpopulated areas are allowed to burn. Smoke from the fires reduced air quality in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, and the carbon emissions from the fires approached the total that Australia normally emits in a year. The fires were mostly extinguished by heavy rain in mid-February 2020.

Locusts devoured crops in Ethiopia’s breadbasket in the Great Rift Valley in February 2020 before spreading to East African countries including Kenya. Reasons for the plague of yellow locusts include conflict and climate change. Wars in Yemen and Somalia limit agriculture and allow locusts to breed and travel south from Yemen and west from Somalia. Unusually rainy weather allowed locusts to reproduce easily in Ethiopia and Kenya.

A swarm of 80 million locusts can eat as much as 35,000 people each day, and swarms can travel up to 80 miles a day in search of more food. The insecticide malathion can kill swarms of locusts, but supplies are limited.

Sea levels are expected to rise by a foot or more over the next decades, affecting 600 million people who live in coastal areas affected by tides. Metro Manila became a bowl of 14 million people with some land below sea level due to the over pumping of ground water. The poorest residents live in the coastal areas most affected by high tides, and often lose their informal housing during storms. Many return after floods and rebuild in low-lying areas because areas prone to flooding offer the best combination of low-cost housing and access to jobs.

Sasol’s Secunda coal-to-fuel plant in Embalenhle, South Africa is the world’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, emitting 56 million tons a year. Coal deposits in the province of Mpumalanga encouraged the construction of 11 Eskom coal-fired plants and the Sasol plant. Both Sasol and Eskom are in financial difficulty, making it hard for them to invest in technologies to reduce emissions.

Renewable energy sources will provide 20 percent of US electricity in 2020, double the 10 percent they provided in 2010, as oil, gas and coal struggle to compete. Renewable solar and wind farms have high fixed and low marginal costs, while gas and oil-fired generators also cost money and take time to build, but their operating costs rise and fall with oil prices. The coronavirus slowed residential solar panel projects, but most wind energy projects are in rural areas and continue to be built.