Lake Mead Drought

Dykstra: A corpse in a barrel in a drying reservoir

And other climate change tales for our age

A grim story about human remains found in a barrel exposed by the receding shoreline of Nevada's Lake Mead caught my eye this past week.


For me, it had all the elements: I grew up in a North Jersey town known for housing a few Mafia celebs, like Willie Moretti, the real-life inspiration for The Godfather’s legbreaker, Luca Brasi.

A few miles away were the heavily-polluted Meadowlands, a once-gorgeous wetland that had become, among other things, the alleged final resting place of countless Mafia debtors, rivals, and no-account Goodfellas.

So when drought-parched Lake Mead gave up the skeletal remains of a potential Western wiseguy, I was fascinated.

Lake Mead drought

Lake Mead is in desperate shape. Along with Lake Powell, upstream on the Colorado River, Mead is the key to prosperity for the booming cities, suburbs and farms of the desert Southwest – Arizona, Southern California, and, of course, Las Vegas. In addition to the unfortunate guy in the barrel, decades of overuse capped off by several years of brutal, climate-driven drought has exposed an intake pipe for Southern Nevada’s 2.2 million people.

They’re running out of water. Putting megacities like Phoenix and Vegas in a desert was never a good idea. They were always destined to run out of water, some day. But the rampant growth and a years-long, killer drought have made the crisis immediate.

And with the corpse-in-a-barrel story, we have one more link between climate and popular culture: The Sopranos meets fossil fuels.

It hardly made a wave, thereby joining the long rap sheet for climate change’s impact on our culture. Mostly, it’s things we’re losing.

Climate change and wine

Climate change wine

A California vineyard

Winecountry Media, via flickr

From Bordeaux to the Napa Valley, vineyards are in trouble. Bordeaux’s quarter million acres of vines face “a slow but simmering” climate crisis, according to Wine Enthusiast magazine. Increased temperatures, more frequent damaging storms and more can have a big impact on the sensitive grape, increasing the alcohol content in some varieties by 10% or more.

In California’s Napa Valley, frequent wildfires have scalded multi-million-dollar vintages. Other vintners who thought they were spared by the flames were felled by the smoke, which either ruined the taste of America’s priciest wines, or blackened the grapes to make the costliest raisins in history.

Insurers have also turned the screws on California wineries, either jacking up premiums, limiting coverage, or cancelling policies outright.

Changing seasons

Phenology is the science of measuring plants’ and animals’ responses to long-term changes in weather and climate. (Note: phenologists get really upset when their work gets mixed up with that of phrenologists, the sideshow quacks who tell your fortune by reading the bumps on your head.)

As spring replaces winter each year, the time- honored work of the tree tappers yields the sweet sap of sugar maples from the northeast U.S. and Quebec. But researchers tell us two things about rising temperatures and sugar maples: The maple syrup is less sweet, and the trees’ range is slowly moving north. Someday, phenologists tell us you won’t be able to find Vermont maple syrup in Vermont.

Lobsters, fluke and whales

Maine Lobster

Lobstermen hauling traps on the Maine coast

Rob Kleine/flickr

Offshore, New England lobsters could meet the same fate. Warming waters are chasing much of the food chain northward. Connecticut and Long Island lobstermen are struggling with a dwindling catch; within decades, Maine lobsters may only exist on the state’s license plates.

Summer flounder, or fluke, are a popular target for both sport and commercial fishermen. North Carolina commercial boats hold most of the permits for fluke in the $22 million industry, but they have to motor north to New Jersey to find the fish.

Northern right whales winter and calve off the Georgia and Florida coasts. They feed in summer in the Gulf of Maine. For now. The 300 or so remaining whales are what’s left after centuries of whaling. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear risk taking more But three recent studies indicate that climate change may be a final blow. The zooplankton that are right whales’ primary food source are increasingly scarce in the whales’ northern range.

So many climate stories

I could go on. Ocean wildlife everywhere is under threat from acidification and from the everyday torrent of microplastics. Shorter term, the energy dynamics of the Ukraine crisis have become the newest rationales for keeping the oil & gas infrastructure afloat.

But I guess that’s plenty for now.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo credit of Lake Mead: Jakob Owens/Unsplash

solar power schools

Solar power at Pennsylvania schools doubled during the pandemic

“If this growth continues, schools could set Pennsylvania up as a clean energy leader and not just the fossil fuels we’re known for.”

NORTH BRADDOCK, Penn.—On Wednesday evening, 10th grader Abby Wypych stood in front of Woodland Hills School District’s board and urged them to approve a feasibility study on installing solar panels.

Keep reading...Show less
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

People in US and UK face huge financial hit if fossil fuels lose value, study shows

Individuals in rich countries face huge financial losses if climate action slashes the value of fossil fuel assets, a study shows, despite many oil and gas fields being in other countries.

New Mexico wildfires prompt congressional action from both parties

In moment of bipartisanship, New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation, Democrat and Republican, came out in support of two bills that would improve access to water in their state as it was ravaged by unprecedented wildfires throughout spring.

Germany: G-7 nations can lead the way on ending coal use

Germany's energy and climate minister said Thursday that the Group of Seven wealthy nations can lead the way on ending the use of coal, a heavily polluting fossil fuel that's responsible for a large chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Colorado judge nixes drilling plan

Environmental advocates in Colorado scored a major victory last week as a U.S. District Court scuttled plans to drill for oil across 30,000 acres in the Centennial State.

How to find a "super tree"

Johnny Appleseed went around planting apple trees. Should we be doing the same, or are there trees that better serve our needs today?

Seed banks catalog Brazil’s food past to safeguard its future

Brazilian agricultural research agency Embrapa has collected some 120,000 seeds from nearly 700 crop species over the course of 49 years, part of an effort to safeguard the country’s rich food diversity.

From our Newsroom
roe v. wade

Derrick Z. Jackson: Roe v. Wade draft bodes ill for air, wetlands and the EPA

Justice Alito’s longstanding consistency in wanting to restrict EPA authority makes it transparent where he wants the court to go.

environmental justice

Op-Ed: Black gold and the color line

How historical racist redlining practices are linked to higher exposures to oil and gas wells.

Our mothers' gifts: Readers respond

Our mothers' gifts: Readers respond

We asked you to share one "big lesson" your mother gave. And you responded

A mother's gift

Gifts from our mothers

What one "big gift" did your mother give you? We want your story.

Bird photography

Earth Day 2022: Amidst the crises, don’t forget the beauty

Words and images from our founder, Pete Myers, on how bird photography keeps him connected to and curious about a planet in peril.

fracking pennsylvania

Public health in Pennsylvania ignored during fracking rush: Report

A new report outlines the alleged missteps in protecting Pennsylvanians from the health impacts of fracking.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.