THE LIGHTBULB

Montana's forests used to have so many trees that they cleaned the air of carbon dioxide. In the 1990s, they absorbed about 20 million tons of CO2 per year.

Now, they are sending millions of tons of the climate-warming gas back into the atmosphere. The forests that once helped blunt the impact of climate change are now contributing to it.

The Post's Zoeann Murphy and Chris Mooney describe that reversal as part of an in-depth video series on how rising temperatures are disrupting lives across the United States. 

The series, published Tuesday, captures how in eastern North Carolina, storm surges during hurricanes are inundating more homes as sea levels rise; how off the coast of Rhode Island, lobstermen are hauling in lighter loads as the crustaceans move north; and how in California, hotter and drier summers are fueling bigger wildfires.

In Montana, the problem in part is beetles. 

The state has warmed 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, considerably more than the United States as a whole.

That heat is contributing to both droughts that dries out forests and to outbreaks of bark beetles. The beetles devour and kill trees, creating even more kindling for fires. During the winter, there are fewer frigid days that would kill off insect larvae, scientists say.

The result — according to an analysis by David Cleaves, former climate change adviser to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service — is that overall Montana's trees have flipped in the past decade or so from being a carbon “sink” to a carbon emitter. The same is true of the forests in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, the analysis found.

“In the last 10, 15 years, there’s been quite a bit more mortality than in earlier times,” said Cleaves, who is now a consultant with the conservation group American Forests. “So much so that … it crept up to become a small but noticeable source of emissions.”

Or as Murphy and Mooney write: “The forests that once provided a counterbalance to climate change are at the moment contributing to it, as carbon-rich trees suddenly burn, or die and slowly decompose.”

The ecological effects of that change are cascading. The area in which Michael Golden used to hunt as a youth in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley was scorched in a 2000 fire. As a result, the elk he hunts have moved on. 

Now his son, Michael Jr., “has to make this multiple-hour hike to get to where the elk are,” Golden said.  

“The hunter’s perception is definitely correct that fires really do shift elks around the landscape,” said Mark Hebblewhite, an elk specialist at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Golden told Murphy and Mooney he doesn't know enough to be sure whether the changes he sees are driven by human-caused warming. He blames the U.S. Forest Service for failing to remove enough dead trees.

But on this, the hunter and ecologists agree: “The forest health has deteriorated,” Gordon said. “Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned. So we have hundreds of thousands of acres of pick-up sticks.”

The continental United States is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was a century ago. Seas around the coasts are nine inches higher. Damage is mounting because of these fundamental changes, and Americans are living it.
Zoeann Murphy and Chris Mooney
OIL CHECK

— Trump sanctions Venezuela’s oil: The Trump administration announced sanctions targeting Venezuela’s oil industry, freezing $7 billion in U.S.-based assets and blocking $11 billion in export proceeds that would result from oil sales over the next year, The Post’s Karen DeYoung, Steven Mufson and Anthony Faiola  report.

How the sanctions could affect Venezuela: The move is meant to weaken the government of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and instead shift power to opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the Trump administration last week recognized as the interim president of Venezuela.

How the sanctions could affect the U.S. oil business: "Analysts and oil company advisers were still trying to decipher the announcement," DeYoung, Mufson and Faiola write. But Citgo, the U.S.-based subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company, owns three refineries in the United States and employs thousands here. A drop in U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude could also affect refiners like Valero, Chevron and PBF Energy.

— PG&E’s wildfire woes: Pacific Gas and Electric has filed officially for bankruptcy protection, facing damage claims that could reach tens of billions of dollars for the role its equipment played in two years of devastating wildfires in California. State officials and investors had been trying to convince the state’s largest electric utility to decide against a bankruptcy filing over the last several days, the New York Times reports, some pointing to the recent conclusion by state fire officials that PG&E did not cause the 2017 Tubbs Fire. “Public interest groups, lawyers for wildfire victims and some investors…fear that it could result in higher electricity rates and make it more difficult for residents to receive compensation for their losses,” per the report. “PG&E is also seeking to maintain its customer programs, including support for low-income customers and the promotion of clean or more efficient energy practices. The company says it intends to pay suppliers in full.”

POWER PLAYS

SHUTDOWN WATCH

— The partial government shutdown is over, and employees trickled back to the office: At the Environmental Protection Agency, acting administrator Andrew Wheeler greeted returning employees on Monday. And elsewhere across the country, National Park Service employees turned up to work even as operations were not fully back to normal, The Post’s Lisa Rein, Tracy Jan and Juliet Eilperin report. “Washington’s Olympic National Park suffered storm damage during the impasse, for example, and park officials warned that as a result, ‘many park roads and campground remain closed,” they write. “Park staff will start assessing damage, clearing downed trees and storm debris from roadways and campgrounds, and reopening areas as quickly as possible.”

For many, a festive reunion: At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Monday mood was “joyous, like a big family reunion — if your family had to suddenly drop everything and scatter for five weeks,” The Post’s Dan Zak, Caitlin Gibson and Ben Terris write in their look at Washington humming back to life. “Everyone’s equipment had to be left behind, and passwords were forgotten, but the wizards from IT were circulating, checking in with everyone, asking if all was okay. Too many people were logging on at the same time to fill out their timecards, so the system kept crashing.”

Some agencies will have to explain how they spent funds during the impasse: Last week, a top Interior Department official wrote a letter to Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), defending the agency’s spending during the shutdown. Warner has been looking into whether there were violations of the Antideficiency Act barring departments from exceeding their appropriated budgets. In the letter, Scott J. Cameron, the Interior Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, said that “officials relied on leftover funds from last fiscal year and fee dollars to pay for operations during the shutdown.” He added that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “used previously appropriated funds to restore a limited number of staff at 38 national wildlife refuges.”

For Joshua Tree, a former official says recovery could take hundreds of years: An ex-superintendent for the Southern California park warned that what happened to Joshua Tree during the impasse “is irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years.” Curt Sauer was speaking to a group of more than 100 who gathered near the park over the weekend, initially intending to protest the shutdown, the Palm Springs Desert Sun reports.

At the USDA, officials extend farm aid deadlines: Farmers now have until Feb. 14 to apply for federal aid meant to protect farmers from losses that resulted from Chinese tariffs on American products, Reuters reports, The shutdown delayed the application process.

Here’s what awaited Smithsonian workers: “At the Natural History Museum, staff showed up Monday to confront bloated trash cans and blown deadlines. A dead cockroach on an office floor,” The Post’s Sarah Kaplan reports. “Exhibits that would need to be revised, meetings that would need to be rescheduled, experiments that would need to be replanned.” As the building slowly came back to life, museum staff realized just how much there was to do, like geologist Cari Corrigan who discovered a crate of 250 space rocks were arriving the next day, ready for her to analyze and classify. Angela Roberts Reeder, an exhibits writer and editor, told Kaplan that during the shutdown, she “really struggled with feeling like the work we do was devalued.”

— Harris says she's a go on the "Green New Deal": "I support a Green New Deal and I will tell you why: climate change is an existential threat and we have got to deal with the reality of it,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said during a CNN town hall Monday night. Some of her rivals for the Democratic nomination for president, like Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), have made similar gestures of support for a plan to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy. The question for all of them is, of course, what specifically do they mean when they use that phrase.

— Democratic lawmakers question Trump administration’s regulatory rollback: In a letter to Wheeler, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) along with the heads of two of the panel’s subcommittees wrote a letter questioning numerous moves including the weakening of mercury and toxic air standards. “These actions are particularly alarming in light of the recent warnings underscoring the impacts of climate change on air quality and the health of the American people,” the Democrats wrote. “We request information to enable the Committee to evaluate the potential effects of these actions on public health and the environment.” Pallone, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) gave Wheeler until Feb. 11 to answer the questions.

— EPA reportedly won’t limit toxic chemicals: Politico reports that the Trump administration will move not to regulate two toxic chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, “have been used for decades in products such as Teflon-coated cookware and military firefighting foam and are present in the bloodstreams of an estimated 98 percent of Americans,” Politico reports. Acting Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler signed off on a draft plan in December, per the report, meaning utilities won’t have to meet federal standards for testing for and stripping these toxic chemicals from drinking water. The decision follows less than a year after the Trump administration and EPA specifically faced criticism for stalling the release of a health report on the chemicals and such a move could present a problem for Wheeler amid a confirmation process to permanently lead the agency.

— Patrolling D.C. for forbidden plastic: With Washington becoming the latest city to ban plastic straws, The Post’s Fenit Nirappil followed around Zach Rybarczyk, an employee of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment who patrols the district to enforce the ban. “Bars and food establishments in the nation’s capital have been replacing plastic with straws made from paper, hay, bamboo or cornstarch,” Nirappil writes. “At Union Station during the first week of January, when the ban took effect, many dining spots on the main level had already switched to compostable straws. But in the basement food court, Rybarczyk drew blank stares from cashiers who had no idea about the ban.” The city won’t start issuing fines against businesses until July.

THERMOMETER

— The polar vortex is coming... In the Midwest and Great Lakes region, more than 87 million people are expected to experience below-zero temperatures and far colder wind chills starting Tuesday. Some forecasts predicted a minus-29 temperature in Chicago, which would be below its Jan. 20, 1985 record low of minus- 27, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. “Even if the record is not broken, the National Weather Service in Chicago is calling this week’s forecast ‘life-threatening extreme cold’ that ‘can lead to rapid onset of frostbite and hypothermia.’ ”

...and right on time, there is a " Global Waming" tweet from Trump:

If the world is warming, why is it so cold? We've said it before and we'll say it again: Global warming means average temperatures are rising globally. A single cold snap doesn’t mean that isn’t happening. In fact, some (but not all) climate scientists think these polar vortex events should be more likely in a warmer world.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the nomination of Nicole R. Nason to be Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.
  • The Environmental Law Institute holds an event.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— But how happy are you really? From the Agriculture Department's official Twitter account: