Equilibrium/Sustainability — Invasive wasps pushing north threaten forests

Invasive wasps are moving north into the warming oak savannahs of the inland Pacific Northwest — putting forests there at risk, a new study has found. 

As they move north, the social insects are entering regions with far fewer predators to keep their populations in check, according to the study, published on Wednesday in Journal of Animal Ecology. 

One particular species called “oak gall wasps” lay their eggs in structures (galls) that they build on the leaves and foliage of oak trees, the study explained. 

“In the native range, you might find a handful of galls on a single leaf. In the expanded range, sometimes you’re finding thousands on a single tree,” co-author Kirsten Prior, of Binghamton University, said in a statement. 

Prior and her colleagues found that the wasps are taking advantage of a natural paradigm in which a species that moves north almost inevitably enters the zone of lesser competition where it can cause greater disruption. 

That means protecting biodiversity can serve a defensive function for ecosystems, according to co-author Dylan Jones, also from Binghamton University.  

“If we have strong competitors and predators, that might make areas less susceptible to invading species,” Jones said.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll survey the fraught role humans play in the survival of the world’s largest ice sheet, followed by the expansion of the trans-Atlantic drought to newer, and historically more temperate, climes. Then we’ll look at two big blind spots in how policymakers predict the danger that extreme weather poses to societies and economies alike.

Fate of world’s biggest ice sheet in human hands

Humans could prevent the demise of the world’s largest ice sheet by keeping global warming below a threshold set in the 2015 Paris climate accords, scientists declared on Wednesday. 

The worst effects of climate change on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet might be avoidable if temperatures do not rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, the researchers revealed in a new study in Nature. 

Where does that threshold come from? Countries agreed to adhere to this limit as part of the Paris Climate Agreement, signed at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. 

  • Saving the ice: If warming stays below 2 degrees Celsius, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet — which holds most of the Earth’s glacier ice — would contribute less than half a meter to sea level rise by the year 2500, according to the scientists.  
  • But if warming surges beyond that threshold, the ice sheet could contribute several meters to sea-level rise in just a few centuries, the researchers warned.  

A precarious future: “The fate of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet remains very much in our hands,” lead author Chris Stokes, of the U.K.’s Durham University, said in a statement.  

“This ice sheet is by far the largest on the planet,” he added, stressing that “it’s really important that we do not awaken this sleeping giant.” 

Global effort: An international research team worked to assess the potential impacts of different emissions levels and temperatures on the ice sheet by 2100, 2300 and 2500.  

  • Their analysis revealed that if warming persists beyond 2100, then the ice sheet could add several meters to global sea level rise over the coming centuries.  
  • This surge would add to the substantial contributions coming from Greenland and West Antarctica — potentially threatening millions of people worldwide.  

Window for action: “We now have a very small window of opportunity to rapidly lower our greenhouse gas emissions, limit the rise in global temperatures and preserve the East Antarctic Ice Sheet,” co-author Nerilie Abram, of the Australian National University, said in a statement.  

“It’s vitally important that countries achieve and strengthen their commitments to the Paris Agreement,” Abram added.  

To read the full story, please click here.

Drought strikes both sides of the Atlantic

The western U.S. has long been wrestling with drought, but this battle has now extended to less frequent participants: the more temperate states on either side of the Atlantic.  

Europe is parched: Drought is affecting about 60 percent of the EU and the U.K., Axios reported, citing the European Drought Observatory.  

  • France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands are facing water shortages.  
  • The EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service has declared an “increased fire danger due to the lack of rain.” 

German artery at risk: Weeks of sizzling temperatures and reduced precipitation have caused the water levels of Germany’s Rhine River to dwindle, according to Reuters.  

The Rhine is an important route for products such as grains, chemicals and coal, Reuters reported.  

Shipping issues abound: A transportation ministry spokesman told reporters on Wednesday that the government expects “an intensification of the low water level,” according to Reuters.  

  • Less water has meant delays in shipping and fivefold increases in freight costs. 
  • These difficulties are occurring with the backdrop of energy shortages caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.    

Driest July in England since 1935: England’s Met Office recently revealed that July 2022 was the driest July for all of England since 1935.  

The U.K. received just 56 percent of its average rainfall last month, according to the Met Office.   

And on the other side of the Atlantic? Officials in New Jersey announced a statewide drought watch on Tuesday for the first time in six years. 

  • The watch serves to “sow public awareness” about water stress and encourage voluntary conservation, according to the Department of Environmental Protection
  • The declaration of a drought warning or emergency with mandatory restrictions could become necessary, the agency warned. 

Rhode Island is also sounding the alarm: Also on Tuesday, Rhode Island
Gov. Dan McKee (D) issued a drought advisory in his state. 

  • An advisory, last issued in September 2020, precedes a drought watch in Rhode Island. 
  • “As a precaution, I encourage residents and businesses to consider taking water conservation measures,” McKee said in a statement

Things are even more severe in Massachusetts: Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Beth Card on Tuesday upgraded most of the state to Level 3-Critical Drought, one step below an emergency declaration.  

“It is incredibly important that we all practice water conservation and adhere to local requirements,” Card said in a statement.

Threats from extreme weather are underestimated

Entire societies could be destabilized by the cascading and interacting effects of climate change-fueled disasters, a new study has found. 

Health food and agriculture are at particular risk of domino-like collapses that could damage “entire socioeconomic systems,” the study in PLOS Climate found.

  • The interconnected nature of modern global economies makes them especially vulnerable to disruptions. 
  • Concurrent disasters — like heat waves occurring alongside hurricanes or drought — increase the impacts.

For example: As the 2018 drought dropped the levels of Europe’s rivers, heat waves also melted roads and buckled railroad tracks, the scientists found. 

  • That made it harder for transportation systems to adapt.  
  • Those impacts didn’t happen in isolation: Heat waves also damaged crops, dried up water sources and cut into the ability of workers to labor outside.

To make matters worse: The effects of climate disturbances on global economies are often longer lasting and more severe than models predict, another paper released on Wednesday warned. 

That means the costs of climate-fueled disaster — and therefore of burning fossil fuels — is likely being undercounted, according to the study, published in Environmental Research Letters.

  • Climate models tend to largely survey only the most immediate and acute economic impacts of phenomena like heat waves. 
  • But in about a quarter of countries surveyed, the effects of climate-fueled temperature spike damaged economies for at least a decade.

Impacts linger: “Many countries are likely experiencing persistent temperature effects,” lead author Bernardo Bastien-Olvera, of the University of California Davis, said in a statement.

  • That might play out in the aftermath of heat-induced crop failures — which are on track to increase by 2030, a study in Environmental Research Letters found last year. 
  • Or it could show up in the impacts of industrial failures, like the Google data centers knocked offline in London in July by Britain’s heat wave, according to Bloomberg.

“Our research adds to the evidence suggesting that impacts are far more uncertain and potentially larger than previously thought,” Bastien-Olvera added.

Forest Service may overstate extent of protections

Claims from the U.S. Forest Service that it has secured 40 million acres against destructive wildfires are likely inflated, researchers and service members told NBC. 

  • The method that the Forest Service uses to calculate total numbers of acres treated allows for a great deal of double-counting. 
  • That means the agency may have treated 20 to 30 percent less forest in some regions than what its published numbers would suggest. 

The USFS estimates that an additional 80 million acres under its control are at risk for catastrophic fires or “abnormal impacts” from insects and disease. 

Agency comment: A Forest Service spokesperson told NBC that the difference between “treated” and “untreated” areas was not “black and white,” and that many areas required multiple rounds of treatment. 

This approach carries risks: “It makes sense we want to show how much work it takes to get something treated. It doesn’t [make sense] to count the same acres over and over again and say we fixed this much,” a USFS official told CNN under condition of anonymity. 

  • “If you interpreted those numbers to say, ‘Hey, we mitigated risk on this many acres,’ you’d be wrong,” the official added.

Weather Wednesday

Losing heart in Seoul, Puerto Rico gets a grid upgrade and Kentucky’s troubles are far from over. 

South Korean floods widen social gaps in Seoul   

  • Devastating floods that hit South Korea’s capital earlier this week caused inconvenience and monetary losses to Seoul’s wealthier residents, but they have also “snuffed out what little hope” poorer inhabitants had “just to keep going,” according to Reuters. “I’ve got no money, nothing. But I had come here to live in this basement, as it was only option I had to live with my daughter,” one man, who is now sleeping in a park, told Reuters.  

Grid assessment system aims to mitigate extreme weather damage in Puerto Rico 

  • The Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has set up a power grid assessment system in Puerto Rico that aims to identify severe weather threats and strengthen critical infrastructure. The new system helps emergency managers better anticipate storm impacts by simulating historical storm trajectories with a range of different wind intensity estimates, a statement from the laboratory said. 

Cold front threatens flood-bashed Kentucky; could cool Northeast 

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