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When the heat is unbearable but there’s nowhere to go

Late last June, farmers in Walla Walla, Washington, noticed something odd happening to their onions. Walla Walla, an oasis in the middle of the state’s high desert, is bursting with vineyards, wheat fields and acres of the city’s eponymous sweet onions. As temperatures climbed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, then above 110 degrees, the oversized onions began to burn, pale blisters forming underneath their papery skins. When the temperature reached 116, the onions started cooking, their flesh dissolving into mush.

Four miles away is the Washington State Penitentiary. It’s one of the country’s oldest prisons, established in the 1880s, before Washington achieved statehood. In June 2021, over 2,000 people were incarcerated in its large concrete buildings. In the Hole — the name incarcerated people use for the solitary confinement unit — the air conditioning had stopped working. Dozens of people spent 23 hours a day locked in small concrete and metal cells, even as temperatures continued to soar.

Washington isn’t known for extreme heat, but far above the fields and prison, two air pressure systems had collided, creating a massive heat dome: a cap of warm air that sealed in the heat and blocked the flow of cool marine breezes from the Pacific. The resulting weeklong heat wave brought some of the hottest temperatures that the state has ever experienced.

Deepti Singh.
Singh

In a particularly alarming trend, climate change is causing average nighttime temperatures to warm even faster than average daytime temperatures, said Deepti Singh, a climate scientist at Washington State University who studies extreme weather events. This is especially dangerous because it limits the body’s ability to cool down, significantly increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses.

Researchers predict that if global temperatures continue to rise, similar events could happen as often as every five to 10 years before the end of this century in the Pacific Northwest. According to Singh, the Washington State University climate scientist, future heat waves could be even longer, hotter and more widespread.

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High Country News
Mother Jones
Crosscut

Forestry scientists focus on wildfire awareness

Lessons from fires of the past can help the West’s residents prepare for wildfires to come—and help our forests become more adapted to an era of fire.

Forestry scientists at Washington State University study wildfire and its impacts on the land, both bad and good. WSU Extension Foresters share current understanding about fire and how to reduce its ravages, helping rural landowners safeguard their homes, property, and natural resources.

Mark Swanson.
Swanson

“The more we use fire as a land management tool, the less we need to be afraid of it,” says Mark Swanson, associate professor and faculty leader for WSU’s Forestry teaching and research program. “Native Americans were masters at using fire to reduce forest density and fuels. We profoundly need to learn from them.”

For nearly a decade, Swanson has been part of a multi-institutional team studying the effects of an unusual fire in California’s Yosemite National Park. In 2013, the Rim Fire burned more than a quarter-million acres on the west slope of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, entering Yosemite, where managers had used prescribed fire for decades to reduce fuels.

Last year, Swanson launched WSU’s new Wildland Fire Ecology and Management course, which prepares young forestry professionals to become entry-level wildland firefighters. The first batch of 25 students awaits certification this spring.

Students learn standard tools, concepts, and practices, from understanding forest and weather conditions to digging a fire line and building an emergency fire shelter.

“We’re trying to prepare our students to be safer in a world that will be more dominated by fire,” Swanson said.

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Western Farmer-Stockman

Study Identifies Outdoor Air Pollution as the ‘Largest Existential Threat to Human and Planetary Health’

Since the turn of the century, global deaths attributable to air pollution have increased by more than half, a development that researchers say underscores the impact of pollution as the “largest existential threat to human and planetary health.”

The findings, part of a study published Tuesday in The Lancet Planetary Health, found that pollution was responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths around the world in 2019. Fully half of those fatalities, 4.5 million deaths, were the result of ambient, or outdoor, air pollution, which is typically emitted by vehicles and industrial sources like power plants and factories.

Ambient air pollution can be generated by a range of sources, including wildfires.

Deepti Singh.
Singh

Deepti Singh, an assistant professor at the School of the Environment at Washington State University, co-authored a separate study into how wildfires, extreme heat and wind patterns can deteriorate air quality.

She noted how in recent years smoke from wildfires in California and the American West has traveled across the United States all the way to the East Coast. At one point during the 2020 wildfire season, Singh said, residents in as much as 70 percent of the Western U.S. experienced negative air quality because of the blazes in the West.

“That wildfire smoke, you know, it has multiple harmful air pollutants,” Singh said. “We don’t even fully understand all the things that are in that smoke. But we know that it’s increasing fine particulate matter, which is something that directly affects our health. It’s something that we can inhale and it affects our cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and it can cause premature mortality and developmental harm—many, many different health impacts associated with that.”

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Inside Climate News

Seattle fish research could shake up global tire industry

Electric vehicles have clear environmental benefits over gas-powered cars, yet all cars and trucks are polluters when it comes to their tires.

Research in Seattle-area creeks has discovered tire bits shedding lethal amounts of a little-known, salmon-killing chemical called 6PPD-quinone.

That research has led California officials to start regulating 6PPD, the tire-rubber stabilizer that degrades into toxic 6PPD-quinone, with consequences that could reverberate around the world.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control is expected to issue a draft rule in May requiring tire manufacturers to look for alternatives to 6PPD.

Jenifer McIntyre.
McIntyre

“6PPD-quinone is among the most toxic chemicals that we know of for aquatic life,” Jenifer McIntyre, an ecotoxicologist in the School of the Environment at Washington State University in Puyallup, said at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in April.

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KUOW

Marcia Ostrom named WSU Food Systems program director

Marcia Ostrom.
Ostrom

Leading statewide outreach supporting access to healthy food for all, Marcia Ostrom is the new director of the Washington State University Food Systems Program.

Founder of the WSU Small Farms Program, which she led for 15 years, and a 21-year WSU faculty member, Ostrom took on directorship March 16, 2022. Ostrom is an associate professor in the WSU School of the Environment and an Extension specialist in sustainable food and farming systems, leading outreach to diverse food and farming communities in Washington.

“The director’s role is an incredible opportunity to lead efforts to build positive change within our institution and across Washington state,” Ostrom said.

WSU Food Systems offers multi-disciplinary education and research to support regional food systems development from farm to table. Working with partner organizations and communities, the program fosters successful farm businesses, promotes better processing, distribution, and sustainable practices, and educates for a more secure, economically vibrant, and equitable regional food system.

The program was originally created as part of the Washington Safe Food Initiative in response to public requests for expanded WSU research and education aimed at socially disadvantaged farmers, sustainable and organic agriculture, and community food security.

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WSU Insider
Morning Ag Clips