Missouri Farms Hold Big Potential as Carbon Storehouse

Research Report by Climate Central

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Agriculture is vital to the state of Missouri. In 2016, Missouri agriculture, forestry and related industries put nearly 400,000 people to work and contributed more than $88 billion to the economy.

But this critical sector is under threat, in part due to the increase in extreme weather events powered by a warming planet. Data from the state climatologist show that since the 1950s, there’s been an upward trend in the number of downpours when there is at least three inches of rain in one storm.

These more frequent heavy rains and subsequent floods, along with increases in extreme heat and drought, contribute to eroding the very foundation agriculture relies upon — the soil.

But through conservation farming practices, Missourians are finding ways to battle erosion and benefit the soil. Many of these practices have an added bonus of sucking carbon dioxide — the gas that’s helping fuel the weather extremes — from the atmosphere and then storing the carbon in the soil.

In our new report, Soil Solutions: Climate-Smart Farming in the Show Me State, we analyze the extent to which use of conservation farming practices — ones that are well known, but not always widely applied — can reduce carbon pollution and yield carbon savings in Missouri. We examine the potential benefits of various individual conservation farming practices for Missouri’s nearly 10 million harvested acres of field crops, and we also look at total potential savings county-by-county if practices were to be adopted statewide.

We found:

  • For ranchers, the greatest carbon sequestration potential comes from modified grazing practices, like rotational grazing.

  • For farmers, the use of cover crops has the potential greatest savings

  • The estimated total annual carbon storage potential for the state as a whole, with the aggressive adoption of conservation practices, is equivalent to more than twice the annual total greenhouse gas emissions of Columbia, home to the state’s flagship land-grant university.

  • At the county level, New Madrid shows the highest potential for carbon savings. The county is in the southeast “Bootheel” region. Five counties with the highest-potential carbon savings are in or adjacent to the Bootheel.

Some farmers and ranchers in Missouri already are putting conservation farming into practice and offsetting emissions. Although agriculture is the fifth largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the EPA, opportunities exist for the sector to take carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil. Missourians are demonstrating that conservations practices are providing a win-win-win outcome — improving soil health, financial health, and the overall health of the planet.

The full report, SOIL SOLUTIONS: Carbon-Smart Farming in the Show Me State, can be read and downloaded here.  

As Seas Rise, Americans Use Nature to Fight Worsening Erosion

This is the first story in “Life on the Edge,” a series of journalism and research initiatives at Climate Central examining wetlands, sea-level rise and coastal change with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. This story was produced and published through partnerships with the Pensacola News Journal and PBS NewsHour.
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DESTIN, Fla. — The grassy yard behind Jennifer McPeak’s house was slipping into Marler Bayou, its edge giving way as waves beat against it. She planned to stem the losses with a $14,000 seawall until a Florida permitting official suggested an alternative — marsh seedlings and bags of oyster shells arranged to blossom into a “living shoreline.”

A few years later, crabs and snails crawl among the oysters and grasses in McPeak’s living shoreline, which occupies nearly the width of her shoreline. Fish school in it when the tide is up. The effects of years of erosion have been reversed; sand is being trapped in the yard when storms and floods hit instead of being washed away.

“We’re clawing back land here,” McPeak said, standing on sandy lawn near the end of a fence, where it used to hang over the water. “I’m loving rough water events now, because I think, ‘Hoo hoo hoo, free sand. So excited.’”

Destin resident Jennifer McPeak crouches on sacks of oyster shells used to build a living shoreline along the edge of her yard.
Credit: Mari Darr-Welch/Climate Central

Centuries of dredging, diking and development have replaced wetlands throughout the U.S. with more than 10,000 miles of rocks, concrete and metal. For every seven miles of coastline in the Lower 48, scientists in North Carolina calculated that about one mile is hardened with a seawall, bulkhead or other hard structure to protect land and property.

Rising costs from flooding and erosion are prompting Americans, military bases and government agencies to opt for more natural alternatives. State and federal governments are changing permitting rules and taking other steps to encourage the switch, which can improve water quality, support fisheries and protect against storms and rising seas.

Segment produced by PBS NewsHour in partnership with Climate Central.

After marsh grasses were planted to reduce erosion at the Needle Rush Point condominium community, which fronts both sides of Perdido Key in Pensacola, residents began seeing more wildlife.

“We’re planting needlerush and cordgrass to create a root barrier,” said Jeanette Pollett, manager of the Needle Rush Point Association. “With the grass, you get everything else. There’s more fish in the area, and the dolphins are entertaining.”

Since permitting rules on living shorelines were eased a little more than a year ago, 34 small living shorelines, typically under 500 feet, have been approved or built in Florida, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers figures, with the Destin area east of Pensacola emerging as a hotspot. That’s more than half of the 60 approvals issued nationwide during the same period; the rest were farther west on the Gulf Coast or north along the East Coast, including 13 in the Norfolk area.

Rising threats

Marler Bayou is more of a stubby inlet off Choctawhatchee Bay than a true bayou. It’s located in a residential part of Destin — a beach town that’s sleepy during winter and erupts with vacationers during warmer months. Tourists take fishing charter trips and party in bars, on beaches and aboard pontoon boats.

Seas have risen an inch and a half in the area since 2002, when McPeak and her husband bought their house on Marler Bayou. Higher water levels worsen erosion from waves, which are kicked up by boats and the wind.

Seas are rising faster as heat-trapping pollution is released from fossil fuels, farming and forest losses. While governments worldwide are taking steps to slow warming and help communities adapt, elected leaders in Florida and the federal government have been dismissive of the problem.

As McPeak’s neighbors installed seawalls to protect their own yards, they made her problems worse. When waves pound against seawalls and bulkheads, wave energy can bounce back into neighboring properties. And it can cause erosion at the base of the infrastructure, which can lead to collapse.

“The erosion is happening,” said Bret Webb, a coastal engineer at the University of South Alabama. He also co-owns a coastal engineering firm specializing in natural protections. “It’s just being transferred.”

Living shorelines are best suited for calmer waterways. They do less to keep floodwaters at bay, but they’re more likely to withstand serious flooding. When a storm surge overtops a seawall or bulkhead, it can scour the earth from behind the infrastructure and cause it to fall over.

Scientists combined insurance industry information, storm data and climate and development scenarios along the Gulf Coast, then assessed the cost-effectiveness of different types of approaches to reduce future damage from flooding. They reported in the journal PLOS ONE that nature-based shoreline protections could halve the costs associated with future flooding along the Gulf Coast, potentially saving tens of billions of dollars.

“Nature-based solutions” were found during the study to be “particularly cost effective,” said Borja Reguero, a coastal engineer at the Nature Conservancy and University of California, Santa Cruz who worked on it. “In terms of a pure benefit-to-cost ratio, they were ranking pretty high.”

Benefits can extend beyond property lines. Nitrogen pollution from lawns and farms that washes into waterways during storms, feeding harmful algae, can be reduced using oyster reefs and other shoreline ecosystems. Marsh growth can support fisheries and clean water, which support Florida’s economy. And coastal vegetation slows climate change by absorbing carbon more effectively in some cases than forests.

Still, seawalls and bulkheads remain more common and popular than natural alternatives. Research published in 2016 by two of Reguero’s colleagues showed that a tiny fraction of spending on coastal protections goes toward natural solutions.

While living shorelines have become popular “as an idea,” Webb said, “what we have not seen is this translate into widespread adoption at the homeowner level.”

A living shoreline hotspot

Like two dozen other living shorelines in the Destin area, McPeak’s was built by the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance. The group collects oyster shells from restaurants and uses state, federal and foundation grant money as well as volunteers to build living shorelines in public parks and for residents and Eglin Air Force Base.

“We want homeowners to see this as an alternative to seawalls,” said Alison McDowell, executive director of the group, which is a program of the Northwest Florida State College Foundation with five full-time staff. “We want to bring on people that can add that testimony.”

The rising popularity of living shorelines in Northwestern Florida is credited in part to a large restoration project in downtown Pensacola — Project GreenShores. The first phase, completed in 2003, involved the restoration of eight acres of salt marsh and seagrass and seven acres of oyster reef. One year later, it protected a section of roadway from the effects of Hurricane Ivan.

By being “visible and tangible,” Project GreenShores has inspired others to take similar approaches, said Darryl Boudreau, a watershed coordinator for the Nature Conservancy in Pensacola.

“They say, ‘Wow I’d like to have something like that in my area,’” he said.

Former DEP/current Nature Conservancy official Darryl Boudreau talks about the restored salt marsh and oyster reef created by Project GreenShores on Bayfront Parkway in Pensacola on Thursday, July 12, 2018.
Credit: Gregg Pachkowski/Pensacola News Journal

Few marine contractors build living shorelines for homeowners, though a growing number of businesses are working on public initiatives similar to Project GreenShores.

“We’re seeing an increase in the popularity of these projects,” said Matthew Trammell, an engineer who leads the Destin office of Taylor Engineering, a coastal engineering and environmental consulting firm. “Governments are trying to be the guinea pigs, if you will, and take the first step.”

Until a streamlined nationwide permit system for living shorelines was put in place last year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it could be more difficult to get the permit needed to build a living shoreline than to build a seawall. McPeak waited a year for her paperwork to be ready.

Florida and other states have also been easing permitting restrictions. Maryland in 2008 went further than any other state, when lawmakers approved rules that require living shorelines to be used as the “preferred method” to reduce erosion at homes.

“The permitting process is a significant part of the disincentives,” said Thomas Ankersen, a professor in the University of Florida’s environmental and land use law program. “The good news is there’s been a substantial effort on the part of the state to streamline what I call ‘small-scale’ living shorelines” — those like McPeak’s.

Still, for Butch Richard, who had a living shoreline built by the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance this summer at his house across the bay from McPeak’s, waiting for the federal permit took nearly six months. Then he had to wait longer for it to be installed, with demand for living shorelines outstripping supply by the small nonprofit.

“The Corps had just started using the new nationwide permit for living shorelines right before the Richard permit was issued,” said Rachel Gwin, the restoration coordinator at the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, who handled the paperwork. “They’ve steadily been approving permits in around four to six months now, which is much quicker than originally but still a slower process.”

McPeak says the long wait for her permits ended up being worth it. With the money she saved on a seawall, she built a boathouse on her dock. And now she enjoys keeping track of the wildlife that visits her yard where the seawall would have been.

“We’ve built quite a thriving ecosystem in the past couple of years,” she said. “People come by and they think it looks really cool. I think it looks really cool, too. It looks like it’s meant to look.”

As McPeak spoke, crouched over the water’s edge, she thrust her arm into the shallows and snatched up an oyster drill. The large sea snails prey on oysters, and this summer in particular they’ve been ravaging her reefs.

“These guys I chuck into the reeds,” she said, hurling the pest to its presumed doom — much as somebody tending to a veggie patch might do to a garden snail caught grazing on their lettuce.

Inspiring neighbors

While homeowners in Florida tend to install living shorelines primarily to stem erosion, they also laud their other environmental benefits, particularly their ability to attract wildlife and support fish stocks.

“We want to plant trees, we want to conserve everything — but we’re not activists,” said Richard, a retired Air Force pilot. His living shoreline was installed in an effort to prevent erosion from reaching a stand of dead trees in a marshy section of his yard popular with eagles and ospreys, which he enjoys watching. “We’re doing everything we can to try to save it.”

Volunteers with the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance finished installing a living shoreline this summer at the property of Butch and Sally Richard in Shalimar, Fla.
Credit: Chris Odom/PBS NewsHour Weekend

Rachel Gittman, an East Carolina University ecologist who studies living shorelines and the reasons homeowners build them, has reviewed the scientific research on the topic. She found that studies began appearing around 2000, showing that natural shorelines support more species and more individual plants and animals than seawalls.

“Recently there have been a lot of efforts to say, ‘Well, this used to be a natural shoreline at one point, before we came in and developed it, and maybe we can learn something,’” Gittman said.

Research by Gittman and others has shown homeowners overestimate the effectiveness of seawalls and bulkheads and underestimate living shorelines. As homeowners begin installing living shorelines, the idea can spread — in much the same way that solar panels can become popular in a neighborhood after they’re installed by one or two homeowners.

With so much coastal property in private hands, Gittman sees sweeping potential for coastal conservation gains if living shorelines catch on among property owners.

“People pay attention to what their neighbors do,” she said. “The individual actions of property owners can add up.”

© Climate Central, 2018.

Air Conditioning Costs Rise With Arizona’s Heat

By John Upton (Climate Central) and Gloria Knott (Arizona Daily Star)

TUCSON, Ariz. — After Curt Tyler’s air conditioner broke down five years ago, he decided to rely on a swamp cooler to save money. Now he frequently swelters inside his own house — while saving more than $100 a month on his power bills.

Read Climate Central’s research report, “The High Cost of HOT.”
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Air conditioning is becoming more vital as temperatures rise in the Southwest’s desert cities. That’s pushing up household utility bills and putting safe and comfortable levels of cooling out of the reach of some.

Tucson, Phoenix and Yuma in Arizona were among the 10 locales that experienced the greatest increases in the amount of cooling required in recent decades as temperatures have risen, according to a new analysis of 244 U.S. cities.

Residents watch television under a cooling breeze from a ceiling fan at the Waverly House Adult Care Home in the historic Catalina Vista neighborhood on July 10, 2018 in Tucson, AZ.
Credit: Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star

“I’ve come home and it feels hotter inside than it does outside,” said Tyler, a food and beverage manager at a Tucson hotel. He lives on the north side and sometimes goes to watch a movie to cool down, or blows a fan over cold bottles to provide relief. “The top three worst things about having a swamp cooler: June, July and August.”

The new analysis, by Climate Central, a non-advocacy group that researches and reports on the changing climate, examined the frequency and extent to which temperatures exceeded 65°F in major cities each year — an optimal temperature for human comfort.

The amount of air conditioning that a resident of Tucson would want to use each year was found to have increased by a little more than a third since 1970. Nationwide, more than nine out of every 10 cities analyzed were found to have experienced an increased demand for cooling.

The demand for air conditioning is expected to keep rising with the temperatures, requiring more electricity to be produced and releasing more of the pollution that’s causing the warming. Governments worldwide are taking steps to shield the climate from heat-trapping pollution, as the Trump administration dismantles federal protections.

Tucson temperatures have risen more than 5°F during the past century.

“We’ve replaced natural vegetation and reflective desert surfaces with asphalt and buildings and materials that absorb and retain heat,” said Gregg Garfin, a climate expert at the University of Arizona. “Throw into that cocktail temperature increases due to climate change, and you’ve got darn hot cities.

Cooling costs a health hazard

Households in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada already spend $400 a year on average on air conditioning — almost double the national average, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. During winter, they’ve always saved money on heating compared with other regions.

Lisa Adams, who runs Waverly House Adult Care Home in the historic Catalina Vista neighborhood, home to seven residents, runs air conditioning during the hottest times of the year. She switches the facility to a swamp cooler to save $500 a month in electricity costs in cooler months.

“It’s cheaper to run the swamp cooler,” Adams said. “We run it until the humidity gets too high.”

Owner Lisa Adams browses under a cooling breeze from a ceiling fan at the Waverly House Adult Care Home in the historic Catalina Vista neighborhood on July 10, 2018 in Tucson, AZ.
Credit: Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star

Increasing heat worsens health risks among those who can’t afford cooling — and it creates hazards for others during blackouts, the risks of which increase during extreme heat. “During the summer the local grid is certainly put to the test,” said Joe Barrios, a spokesman for Tucson Electric Power.

The risks of going without air conditioning in high temperatures can be severe, particularly for those who are frail or elderly, unborn children, and those addicted to drugs or alcohol.

“It can range from from just feeling lethargic and having a headache and move toward more severe signs,” said Jennifer Vanos, a scientist who investigates links between the climate and health and is about to start a position at Arizona State University. “You can pass out and have damage to your organs, and of course death is a potential.”

Even as outdoor heat has increased, deaths from exposure to it have been declining. Researchers suspect Americans have become more aware of the risks and better at avoiding them. “People might be heeding the warning messages,” said David Hondula, a climate and health scientist at Arizona State University.

As temperatures keep rising, and with them demand for air conditioning, Hondula warned that those reductions in death rates may yet be reversed. “It’s unknown to what extent those adaptations can work moving forward,” he said.

Preparing for emergencies

With the need for air conditioning rising, new efforts are being introduced to protect city and county residents from extreme heat during blackouts. And charities provide cooling centers for the homeless and occasionally lend a hand to families that can’t afford their cooling bills.

“We certainly do see a spike in the summer with people requesting help with their Tucson Electric Power bills,” said Connie Trecartin, a deacon at the South Side Presbyterian Church. “They’re a lot higher than they are in the rest of the year.”

Pima County recently updated its emergency protocols and it plans to use libraries as evacuation centers during fires, floods and prolonged blackouts in high temperatures. Victims of disasters will be treated and supported at the facilities.

If a prolonged blackout affects a portion of the county, Louie Valenzuela, who manages public health emergency preparedness efforts for Pima County, said residents may be bussed from one library to another one that has power. “Our libraries are strategically placed,” he said.

Separately, a program of Physicians for Social Responsibility emphasizes neighborliness to help neighborhoods prepare for prolonged blackouts during bouts of extreme heat, like identifying the most vulnerable residents and locations nearby where they could keep coolest without power.

“For those of us who have lived here a long time, we’ve learned to adapt to some extent — but we’re highly dependent on air conditioning,” said Barbara Warren, the volunteer executive director of the Arizona chapter of the national nonprofit, who helped develop the program.

“A lack of social cohesion in a community or neighborhood leads to much higher risks of death,” Warren said. “We’re finding that in many of the communities we’re working in, there isn’t a lot of social cohesion.”

This story was produced and published in partnership with the Arizona Daily Star. It may not be republished without permission.

Report: The High Cost of Hot

Research Report by Climate Central

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As additional carbon pollution continues to trap more and more heat in the atmosphere, the higher temperatures that result can come with a hefty price tag. Some of those costs hit our wallets in the form of higher energy bills from greater use of air conditioning. Warmer temperatures can also have major health impacts, increasing our vulnerabilities to allergies, asthma, heat stroke and even death. To better understand how this is impacting local communities, Climate Central analyzed trends in cooling degree days and minimum temperatures. Of the 244 cities analyzed, 93 percent had an increase in cooling degree days. Much of this warming occurs at night, demonstrated by the fact that of those same cities, 87 percent see an increase in the occurrence of overnight low temperatures above a threshold of either 55°F or 65°F.

Warm Nights

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the optimal temperature for sleeping is around 65°F. Unfortunately, daily minimum temperatures, which most often occur at night when our bodies rest and recover, have been increasing as a result of climate change. And in many places, those minimums have been increasing at a faster rate than the average temperature. The jump in overnight lows is driving much of the overall temperature increase in the United States. According to calculations by NOAA/NCEI, the rate of warming for overnight temperatures since 1900 is more than 20 percent higher than the daytime rate.

Climate Central analyzed the trend in nights above 65°F for cities across the country. For a smaller set of cities that rarely experience nights above 65°F, we dropped that temperature to 55°F for this analysis. Overall, our analysis found that 87 percent of U.S. cities are experiencing more warm nights since 1970. El Paso, Las Cruces, and Fresno all see an increase of more than 50 nights over 65°F, while San Francisco had the biggest increase of 80 nights over 55°F.

Urban Heat Islands

Because surfaces like streets and buildings absorb the sun’s heat more readily than do trees and grasses, cities typically become “urban heat islands”. Researchers have estimated that the urban heat island effect can increase overnight temperatures in cities by as much as 22°F. And while the temperature on the thermometer in rural areas may not be quite as high as the cities, the long-term trend is the same — temperatures are rising. So cities alone are not driving the overall rising temperatures nationally and globally.

Adding vegetation in cities can help lessen the heat island effect. Researchers estimate that shaded surfaces can be a remarkable 20–45°F cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials— which means lower air-conditioning costs and relief for those working in the heat. However, a recent analysis found that many urban areas in multiple states are losing tree cover, sometimes dramatically so.  For example, between 2009 and 2014, Rhode Island and Georgia respectively lost 44 and 40 percent of their urban and community tree cover.  

Cooling Degree Days

The concept of cooling degree days (CDD), and their counterpart heating degree days (HDD), are primarily used to estimate the amount of artificial cooling or heating needed to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature.

In fact, degree days aren't actually days at all. They represent the number of degrees the daily average temperature is above or below 65°F. In this report, we are focusing on heat and the corresponding cooling degree days, which follow this equation:

It’s important to note, an increase in the number of cooling degree days is a result of an increase in the number of days above 65°F, an increase in the number of degrees above 65°F, or both.

Climate Central analyzed 244 cities in the U.S. and determined that 93 percent have seen an increase in CDDs. Traditionally hot cities have seen the highest rise in CDDs. The largest increases are in McAllen, Texas, Phoenix and Las Vegas. However, many cooler cities that in the 1970s did not need widespread air conditioning are experiencing a large percentage increase in the past 10 years. For example, the number of CDDs in San Francisco and Portland, OR have almost doubled during the analysis period.


Trend in cooling degree days in these U.S. cities

As temperatures continue to climb, so will the cost of associated electricity bills and the demand for air conditioning our homes and places of business increases.  Air conditioning is already the largest share of residential electricity use (17 percent), according to the Energy Information Administration. In 2015, Americans spent over $27 billion cooling their homes.

A state-by-state-roster of partners is available on the EPA's website

Households in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana have the highest air conditioning use per household — almost six times more than in New England. The average annual cost for homes across the U.S. with air conditioning is approximately $250. In the high use areas of the South, air conditioning costs are almost $450 a year. A 2014 Climate Central analysis of projected future summer temperatures shows that by 2100 New England summers will be as hot as current summers in Florida, dramatically increasing the need for artificial cooling.

Methodology: Trends in minimum temperatures and cooling degree days were calculated using data from the Applied Climate Information System (rcc-acis.org). Both analyses excluded years with more than 60 days of missing data. For the analysis of days with a minimum temperature at or above 65°F (or 55°F for a smaller subset), we counted the total number of days with a minimum temperature each year at or above that threshold. Cooling degree days were calculated using the sum of the daily cooling degree days measure. All analyses were performed in R. Trends were estimated using R’s simple linear regression model.

Climate Central's Jennifer Brady contributed data analysis for this story.