The Worst-Case Scenario for #GlobalWarming Tracks Closely With Actual Emissions — Inside Climate News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

From Inside Climate News (Bob Berwyn):

With scientists divided between hope and despair, a new study finds that the model projecting warming of 4.3 degrees Celsius is “actually the best choice.”

The ice front of Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Photo credit: David Vaughan via the British Antarctic Survey.

When scientists in the early 2000s developed a set of standardized scenarios to show how accumulating greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will affect the climate, they were trying to create a framework for understanding how human decisions will affect the trajectory of global warming.

The scenarios help define the possible effects on climate change—how we can limit the worst impacts by curbing greenhouse gas emissions quickly, or suffer the horrific outcome of unchecked fossil fuel burning.

The scientists probably didn’t think their work would trigger a sometimes polarized discussion in their ranks about the language of climate science, but that’s exactly what happened, and for the last several months, the debate has intensified. Some scientists say the worst-case, high emissions scenario isn’t likely because it overestimates the amount of fossil fuels that will be burned in the next few decades.

But a new study published [August 3, 2020] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that the high-end projection for greenhouse gas concentrations is still the most realistic for planning purposes through at least 2050, because it comes closest to capturing the effects “of both historical emissions and anticipated outcomes of current global climate policies, tracking within 1 percent of actual emissions.”

The scenarios, called Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), roughly show how much warmer the world will be by 2100, depending on how much more fossil fuel is burned, and how the climate responds. The best-case scenario (RCP 2.6) is the basis for the Paris climate agreement and would lead to warming of about 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 Celsius) by 2100. In that scenario, about 10 percent of the world’s coral reefs could survive, and 20 percent of Alpine glaciers would remain.

The worst-case pathway (RCP 8.5) would result in warming of more than 8 degrees Fahrenheit (4.3 Celsius) by 2100, probably killing nearly all the world’s reefs and definitely pushing vast areas of polar ice sheets to melt, raising sea level by as much as 3 feet by 2100.

Even though it’s unlikely that coal burning will increase as envisioned in the worst-case pathway, cumulative greenhouse gas concentrations are still racing upward toward a level that will cause extremely dangerous heating, said Phil Duffy, who co-authored the paper with two other scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center.

“For near-term time horizons, we think it’s actually the best choice because it matches cumulative emissions. What happened over the last 15 years has been about exactly right compared to what was projected by RCP 8.5,” Duffy said. “For those reasons, it’s still a plausible scenario.”

That holds especially true for medium-term planning through 2050, Duffy said, explaining that the study grew out of some work his research institution was doing with the McKinsey Global Institute exploring the socioeconomic consequences of global warming out to about 2040 or 2050.

“Those are the time horizons those guys care about because it affects things like home mortgages,” he said. “And what about out to 2100? Part of what I think about that is, we have different scenarios because we don’t know, and we shouldn’t characterize scenarios by saying, this one is right, this one is wrong. I think you have to be very careful about saying a scenario is wrong or misleading.”

Stanford Earth scientist Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project, said it’s important to remember that RCP scenarios were always intended as an intermediate step on the path to developing more accurate projections that include not only the physical effects of greenhouse gases, but also how those effects could trigger amplification of warming, for example by thawing more permafrost that could unleash unexpected quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term.

“RCP 8.5 was never really ‘business as usual’ … though that’s what it’s called. It’s just an aggressive picture of greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, we’re much closer to it today than anyone would have wanted. It remains a useful metric,” Jackson said.

But that usefulness may have been tarnished by widespread characterization of RCP 8.5 as a “business-as-usual” scenario, said Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project. For a while, “business-as-usual” seemed accurate because of a dramatic increase of coal burning in China, he added.

But Canadell said most of the research suggesting a continued rapid increase in coal use is now about 10 years old. In fact, “coal emissions have been coming down since 2013, when China peaked coal emissions. Somehow, people got stuck with papers published a long time ago, which caught the imagination of many,” he said.

Additionally, many scientists published papers about climate impacts like sea level rise and heat waves based on the worst-case outcome because they wanted to show the dramatic effects of extreme warning, he said. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s global climate assessments don’t suggest that carbon-climate feedback loops like increasing emissions of greenhouse gases from permafrost could lead to a worst-case outcome, he said.

On a hopeful note, Canadell added that the rate of carbon dioxide emissions have slowed over the last two decades, didn’t grow at all during the last two years and “won’t grow much over the coming years or longer. Even if we resume some growth, it will be modest,” he said. “We don’t know the future, but we are going to be hovering at stabilization of CO2 emissions for quite a few years, up to a decade, and by then renewable energy will be certainly meeting more than the excess energy demand.”

The discussion about the worst-case scenario may be distracting from more urgent matters, said Fredi Otto, acting director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford.

“I think the scenarios are there because we cannot predict the future and thus need to explore a whole range of scenarios. What is not helpful is to choose just one scenario. And what I think is extremely unhelpful is to call it business as usual,” she said.

“All this discussion goes very much away from the scientific understanding we are actually trying to gain and implies every scientist would have to define publicly where they are on the spectrum between denial and doom,” she said, “and that is a very stupid point we seem to have arrived at.”

Nearly all of #Colorado is under some #drought status. A year ago, almost none of the state was parched. — The Colorado Sun #ActOnClimate

The country’s second largest potato producing region, is in its 18th year of drought in 2020. The San Luis Valley in Colorado is known for its agriculture yet only has 6-7 inches of rainfall per year. San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From The Colorado Sun (Evan Ochsner):

Much of Colorado continues to suffer through extreme drought, and nearly all of the state is experiencing drought, according to the latest data released by the U.S Drought Monitor, a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others.

Climate change could make droughts more severe and more common and disrupt the state’s economy. And while this year’s drought isn’t the most severe of the past decade, it will take “years and years of heavy rain to get back up to normal,” drought monitor author Richard Heim said.

The red on the map below represents extreme drought, while orange represents severe drought…

West Drought Monitor July 28, 2020.

A year ago, Colorado was pleasantly, surprisingly moist. The Western corners of the state were “abnormally dry,” shown in yellow, the lowest level of drought classification by the monitor. The rest of the state, shown in white, was drought-free…

West Drought Monitor August 8, 2019.

But conditions deteriorated over the past year, and a combination of short-term dryness and long-term dryness in the state has led to drought. Heim says Colorado has been in a “persistently dry pattern, in general, for most of the state.”

Colorado has also been suffering from relatively warm temperatures and a high propensity for evaporation. When the air is evaporating water at a higher rate, there is lower humidity and less water in the soil, rivers and reservoirs.

The monsoon late last summer was lackluster, which put the state on the trajectory toward drought. The state was dry going into the winter, and a dry and warm spring contributed to the current conditions…

Another important factor in staving off dryness: snow melt. Colorado’s high country snowpack plays a critical role in maintaining moisture in the state. Alpine snow fields serve as a reservoir, and when the snow melts it feeds rivers and streams and percolates into the soil. The unusually dry spring disrupted this process, and the snow melted too quickly to feed water systems downstream.

The past few months have been particularly dry, with vast portions of the state — shown in red in the map below — suffering from precipitation levels well below average…

Credit: The High Plains Regional Climate Center

Though conditions have worsened in the northwestern corner of the state, they have improved in many other places, particularly in the southern portion of the state…

The improvement is explained at least in part by increasing rainfall in a large part of the state. “So far, the early parts of the monsoon season have been promising,” Colorado State Climatologist Russ Schumacher said.

The drought-stricken southern portion of the state has had more rain in recent weeks, which has made a noticeable impact. Precipitation can temporarily lower fire danger and make a dent in dry conditions, but thunderstorms are not enough to lift a region out of drought…

The long-term outlook for Colorado this summer and early fall suggests the drought will persist. NOAA forecasts predict Colorado will be among the driest parts of the country, relative to its normal levels of precipitation. Most of the state, shown in dark brown, has a 40% chance of seeing lower precipitation than normal. Those are the worst odds in the country, the model shows.

Heat, too, will likely exacerbate the likelihood of sustained drought. Much of Colorado has a 60% likelihood of being hotter than normal in the coming months.

“If it remains warmer than average for an extended period, even if you have normal or above-normal precipitation, it doesn’t really end the drought in that situation,” said Schumacher, the state climatologist.

The heat projection shown above reflects recent trends, as much of the Southwest has become increasingly hot during the summer months in recent years. Experts say the western portion of the U.S. has grown hotter and hotter over the years.

The darker the red in the map below, published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the hotter the area has been trending. According to the model, there is a “clear warming trend,” compared to previous summers.

Summer temperatures across the country have been increasingly high compared to historical norms. The trend is most pronounced in the west. Credit: NOAA

Climate change is causing serious concern among scientists who study drought, because it could make droughts more severe and more common. The changing climate could stress systems necessary for staving off drought.

Colorado’s critical snowpack could be severely hit by climate change. The warming temperatures could shorten the snow season, lead to quicker melting and turn wintertime snow into rain. The high altitude of Colorado’s mountains insulates the state from some of those effects, but it’s not immune. As droughts this summer and in years past demonstrate, changes in snowpack can affect the climate year-round.

A warming climate could also lead to less overall precipitation and increase the rate of all-important evaporation.

“Climate change is water change,” Schumacher said.

Because Colorado already has an arid climate, changes in precipitation caused by climate change can have a major impact on the economy and people’s livelihoods. And while drought in Colorado is not a new phenomenon, scientists are increasingly confident that climate change is playing a role.

“What’s happening in the West is attributed to climate change,” said Heim, the drought monitor.

If the water goes, the desert moves in: “…there’s just no low-snow anymore — and it’s not coming back (Jim Gillespie)” — Writers on the Range #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From Dave Marston (Writers on the Range):

Paonia, a small town in western Colorado with a handful of mesas rising above it, wouldn’t green-up without water diverted from a river or mountain springs. The lively water travels through irrigation ditches for miles to gardens and small farms below. But this summer, irrigation ditches were going dry, and one, the Minnesota Canal and Reservoir Company, stopped sending water down to its 100-plus customers as early as July 13.

Drought was hitting the state and much of the West hard, but a local cause was surprising: Water theft.

Longtime residents who gather inside Paonia’s hub of information trading, Reedy’s Service Station, have a fund of stories about water theft. It’s not unusual, they say, that a rock just happens to dam a ditch, steering water toward a homeowner’s field. Sometimes, says farmer Jim Gillespie, 89, that rock even develops feet and crosses a road.

But this is comparatively minor stuff, says North Fork Water Commissioner Luke Reschke, as stealing ditchwater is a civil offense. Stealing water from a natural waterway, however, is a crime that can bring fines of $500 per day and jail time. That’s why what was happening to people who depend on the Minnesota Canal company for their fields or gardens was serious: Water was being taken from Minnesota Creek before it could be legally diverted for irrigation to paying customers.

Once the ditch company “called” for its water as of June 8, only holders of patented water rights could legally touch the creek. Yet during three trips to the creek’s beginning, starting in mid-June, and then in mid-July, I noticed that two ranches – without water rights — were harvesting bumper crops of hay. How could that have happened unless they’d illegally diverted water to their fields?

At first, no one would talk about the early-drying ditch except to hint broadly that it wasn’t normal. Then one man stepped up: Dick Kendall, a longtime board member of the Minnesota canal company, and manager of its reservoir. “On July 5,” he told me, “I saw water diverted from the creek onto one of the rancher’s land. And I wasn’t quiet about it.”

Kendall reported what he saw to Commissioner Luke Reschke, who oversees the area’s 600 springs, ditches and canals. Reschke dismissed it, he told me, because “The rumor mill is something else on Minnesota Creek. The only people who give me trouble are the new people who don’t know how the system works.” But locals say that four years back, Reschke’s predecessor, Steve Tuck, investigated when locals complained.

Though it may not be neighborly, stopping any illegal diversion is important, said Bob Reedy, owner of Reedy’s Station: “Without water, you’ve got nothing around here.” Annual rainfall is just 15 inches per year, and without water flowing into irrigation canals from the 10,000-foot mountains around town, much of the land would look like the high desert it truly is.

But it’s not just a couple of high-elevation ranchers dipping into the creek. The West Elk Coal Mine runs large pumps that supply water for its methane drilling and venting operations in the Minnesota Creek watershed.

Mine spokesperson Kathy Welt, said the diversion is legal, and that they only take early-season water when the creek water isn’t on call. That early water, however, is what begins to fill the Minnesota ditch’s reservoir.

In other ways, the mine has damaged the watershed by building a sprawling network of roads in the Sunset Roadless Area (Threats at West Elk Mine). A cease and desist order from the State Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety on June 10, sought by environmental groups, halted the building of an additional 1.6 miles of new roads this spring (Colorado Sun). Satellite images of the road network resemble a vast KOA Campground: Where trees once held back water and shaded snowpack from early melting, their replacement — gravel roads –- shed water and add to early runoff.

For all of Minnesota Ditch’s challenges, warming temperatures brought about by climate change could be the real challenge. Kendall said that this spring, when he plowed out the Minnesota Reservoir road, dust covered the parched ground beneath the snow.

Water — so precious to grow grapes, hay, organic vegetables and grass-fed beef, and to keep the desert at bay — had vanished early on Lamborn Mesa above Paonia. Farmer Gillespie summed it up, “there’s just no low-snow anymore — and it’s not coming back.”

David Marston. Photo credit: Writers on the Range

David Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, (, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives part-time in Colorado.

Does #coronavirus linger in the body? What we know about how viruses in general hang on in the brain and testicles — The Conversation #COVID19

Are there places in the body where SARS-CoV-2 can hide from the immune system?
fotograzia / Getty Images

William Petri, University of Virginia

As millions of people are recovering from COVID-19, an unanswered question is the extent to which the virus can “hide out” in seemingly recovered individuals. If it does, could this explain some of the lingering symptoms of COVID-19 or pose a risk for transmission of infection to others even after recovery?

I am a physician-scientist of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia, where I care for patients with infections and conduct research on COVID-19. Here I will briefly review what is known today about chronic or persistent COVID-19.

What is a chronic or persistent viral infection?

A chronic or persistent infection continues for months or even years, during which time virus is being continually produced, albeit in many cases at low levels. Frequently these infections occur in a so-called immune privileged site.

What is an immune privileged site?

There are a few places in the body that are less accessible to the immune system and where it is difficult to eradicate all viral infections. These include the central nervous system, the testes and the eye. It is thought that the evolutionary advantage to having an immune privileged region is that it protects a site like the brain, for example, from being damaged by the inflammation that results when the immune system battles an infection.

An immune privileged site not only is difficult for the immune system to enter, it also limits proteins that increase inflammation. The reason is that while inflammation helps kill a pathogen, it can also damage an organ such as the eye, brain or testes. The result is an uneasy truce where inflammation is limited but infection continues to fester.

A latent infection versus a persistent viral infection

But there is another way that a virus can hide in the body and reemerge later.

A latent viral infection occurs when the virus is present within an infected cell but dormant and not multiplying. In a latent virus, the entire viral genome is present, and infectious virus can be produced if latency ends and the infections becomes active. The latent virus may integrate into the human genome – as does HIV, for example – or exist in the nucleus as a self-replicating piece of DNA called an episome.

A latent virus can reactivate and produce infectious viruses, and this can occur months to decades after the initial infection. Perhaps the best example of this is chickenpox, which although seemingly eradicated by the immune system can reactivate and cause herpes zoster decades later. Fortunately, chickenpox and zoster are now prevented by vaccination. To be infected with a virus capable of producing a latent infection is to be infected for the rest of your life.

Latent infection (left) is when a cell is infected and the virus has inserted its genetic code into our human DNA. The immune system cannot detect this cell as being infected. An HIV infection can shift from latent to active if the infected cell is producing new viruses.
ttsz / Getty Images

How does a virus become a latent infection?

Herpes viruses are by far the most common viral infections that establish latency.

This is a large family of viruses whose genetic material, or genome, is encoded by DNA (and not RNA such as the new coronavirus). Herpes viruses include not only herpes simplex viruses 1 and 2 – which cause oral and genital herpes – but also chickenpox. Other herpes viruses, such as Epstein Barr virus, the cause of mononucleosis, and cytomegalovirus, which is a particular problem in immunodeficient individuals, can also emerge after latency.

Retroviruses are another common family of viruses that establish latency but by a different mechanism than the herpes viruses. Retroviruses such as HIV, which causes AIDS, can insert a copy of their genome into the human DNA that is part of the human genome. There the virus can exist in a latent state indefinitely in the infected human since the virus genome is copied every time DNA is replicated and a cell divides.

Viruses that establish latency in humans are difficult or impossible for the immune system to eradicate. That is because during latency there can be little or no viral protein production in the infected cell, making the infection invisible to the immune system. Fortunately coronaviruses do not establish a latent infection.

Is it safe for a man to have sex after recovering from COVID-19?
Andrey Zhuravlev / Getty Images

Could you catch SARS-CoV-2 from a male sexual partner who has recovered from COVID-19?

In one small study, the new coronavirus has been detected in semen in a quarter of patients during active infection and in a bit less than 10% of patients who apparently recovered. In this study, viral RNA was what was detected, and it is not yet known if this RNA was from still infectious or dead virus in the semen; and if alive whether the virus can be sexually transmitted. So many important questions remain unanswered.

Ebola is a very different virus from SARS-C0V-2 yet serves as an example of viral persistence in immune privileged sites. In some individuals, Ebola virus survives in immune privileged sites for months after resolution of the acute illness. Survivors of Ebola have been documented with persistent infections in the testes, eyes, placenta and central nervous system.

The WHO recommends for male Ebola survivors that semen be tested for virus every three months. They also suggest that couples abstain from sex for 12 months after recovery or until their semen tests negative for Ebola twice. As noted above, we need to learn more about persistent new coronavirus infections before similar recommendations can be considered.

Could persistent symptoms after COVID-19 be due to viral persistence?

Recovery from COVID-19 is delayed or incomplete in many individuals, with symptoms including cough, shortness of breath and fatigue. It seems unlikely that these constitutional symptoms are due to viral persistence as the symptoms are not coming from immune privileged sites.

Where else could the new coronavirus persist after recovery from COVID-19?

Other sites where coronavirus has been detected include the placenta, intestines, blood and of course the respiratory tract. In women who catch COVID-19 while pregnant, the placenta develops defects in the mother’s blood vessels supplying the placenta. However, the significance of this on fetal health is yet to be determined.

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The new coronavirus can also infect the fetus via the placenta. Finally, the new coronavirus is also present in the blood and the nasal cavity and palate for up to a month or more after infection.

The mounting evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 can infect immune privileged sites and, from there, result in chronic persistent – but not latent – infections. It is too early to know the extent to which these persistent infections affect the health of an individual like the pregnant mother, for example, nor the extent to which they contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

Like many things in the pandemic, what is unknown today is known tomorrow, so stay tuned and be cautious so as not to catch the infection or, worse yet, spread it to someone else.The Conversation

William Petri, Professor of Medicine, University of Virginia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

#Wildfires can poison drinking water – here’s how communities can be better prepared — The Conversation

The 2018 Camp Fire north of Sacramento burned everything in its path: cars, power lines, and buildings – and contaminated local drinking water.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Andrew J. Whelton, Purdue University and Caitlin R. Proctor, Purdue University

In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.

The 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise and Butte County, California was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history. It took 86 lives and destroyed more than 18,000 structures in a matter of hours.

Almost two years later, only a fraction of the area’s 40,000-plus population has returned. This disaster followed the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people in California’s Sonoma and Napa counties.

After both fires, drinking water tests revealed a plethora of acutely toxic and carcinogenic pollutants. Water inside homes was not safe to use, or even to treat. Water pipes buried underground and inside of buildings were extensively contaminated.

We are environmental engineers who help communities affected by disasters, and supported responses to both fires. As we conclude in a recently published study of burned areas, communities need to upgrade building codes to keep wildfires from causing this kind of widespread contamination of drinking water systems.

Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire’s path.
Andrew Whelton, Purdue University

Wildfires and water

Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.

After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials.

Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them.
Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University

Firefighting can accelerate the spread of contamination. As emergency workers draw hydrant water, they spread contaminated water through the water pipe network.

Metal, concrete and plastic pipes can become contaminated. Many plastics take up these chemicals like sponges. As clean water later passes through the pipes, the toxic substances leach out, rendering the water unsafe.

In the Tubbs and Camp fires, chemicals in the air may have also been sucked into hydrants as water pipes lost pressure. Some water system plastics decomposed and leached chemicals directly into water. Toxic chemicals then spread throughout pipe networks and into buildings.

Limited water testing by state and local agencies showed benzene and naphthalene were present at levels that could cause immediate harm. These, as well as methylene chloride, styrene, toluene and vinyl chloride exceeded longer-term regulated exposure limits. Many of these chemicals cause cancer. All can cause vomiting, diarrhea and nausea after short-term high concentration exposure.

Anyone who drinks the water containing these substances could be harmed. And simply running a faucet could cause chemicals to enter the air. Hot showers and boiling water would vaporize the chemicals and increase the dose a person breathed in. Some of these substances can also be absorbed through the skin.

Dangerous contamination levels

Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer harm at levels as low as 26 ppb.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children’s short-term acute exposure to 200 ppb, and long-term exposure to less than 5 ppb. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is 500 ppb.

In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.

The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.

In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA’s recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed more than 280 days of flushing to make them safe again.

Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact.
Andrew Whelton, Purdue University

Building codes could make areas disaster-ready

Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.

Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.

Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.

Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.

Benzene contamination in the water supply slowed rebuilding efforts in Paradise, Calif., after the Camp Fire.

The smell test doesn’t work

Under no circumstance should people be told to smell the water to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.

Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. “Do not use” orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, disaster after disaster, government agencies have failed to take this step.

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Buildings should be tested to find contamination. Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.

While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may mistakenly think the devices can be used for that purpose.

To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.

Preparing for future fires

The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.

Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.The Conversation

Andrew J. Whelton, Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental & Ecological Engineering, Purdue University and Caitlin R. Proctor, Lillian Gilbreth Postdoctoral Fellow, Purdue University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.