Thursday, September 15, 2011

Drought, heat, fires...repeat

Richard Whittaker in the Austin Chronicle: There is little doubt that the recent Central Texas fires have left deep scars on the ecology and air quality of the region. And environmentalists warn that, beyond the immediate destruction and pollution, the wildfires and the drought that led to them are dramatic symptoms of global climate change and could signal a feedback loop that helps accelerate the process.

Austin has persistent trouble with its air quality, much of it due to climate-change gasses like ozone, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, and that situation has been exacerbated by the fires. When measuring air quality for particle pollution like soot from fires, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality most closely monitors what are called PM-2.5 – airborne particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter – and rates their density on a scale stretching from green for good to maroon for hazardous. Accord­ing to TCEQ media relations manager Terry Clawson, even during the worst of the blaze, when smoke was clearly visible in Central Austin neighborhoods, "It got up into the yellow range a little bit, but we did not see any big health issues around the state."

Ironically, the scorching temperatures and tinderbox conditions that led to the polluting fires have also meant that Austin has seen fewer spikes in its ozone pollution levels. In a typical year, Austin Climate Protection Program coordinator Pharr Andrews would expect to see between 30 and 40 ozone warning days. So far in 2011, she said, "we have 10 ozone watch days called by TCEQ, so I guess overall this has been a pretty mild season." While Andrews said she hoped that people responding to pollution education has helped cut that total, atmospheric chemistry plays a role.

...The standards for pollution measurement are set at the federal level, and environmental groups are deeply concerned that the Obama administration is backpedaling just as the impact of climate change is at its most profound. On Sept. 2, just before the latest fires, the White House announced it would not introduce new Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Stan­dards and instructed the Environ­mental Protection Agency to wait on an updated scientific review that's due in 2013. The decision has been roundly condemned by environmental groups, but Clawson issued a statement for TCEQ saying that "the EPA is beginning to consider science and common sense in their decisions."...

A shot of the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bat Bridge (a renowned bat habitat), by Dan Pancamo, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

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