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

Global Plastic Treaty
The third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution negotiations were held in Nairobi, Kenya last November. (Credit: UNEP/Ahmed Nayim Yussuf)

This will be a big year in shaping the future of chemical recycling

The controversial practice looms large in state environmental laws, federal regulation and global plastic treaty negotiations.

With a presidential election looming, a wave of state-level legislation circulating, an international plastics treaty taking form and fights brewing over proposed facilities, 2024 is set to shape the regulatory future of chemical recycling in the U.S.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
petrochemical divestment & financing
Credit: pawinp/BigStockPhotosID: 207374143

Big brands commit to disclosing and cutting down on plastic usage under investor pressure

Activist investors secure early wins in reducing plastic use among major corporations like Disney and Hormel, spotlighting the growing influence of shareholder advocacy on environmental practices.

Joseph Winters reports for Grist.

Keep reading...Show less
Hawaii wildfire impacts coral reefs
Credit: State Farm/Flickr

Hawaii faces an unprecedented challenge as wildfire impacts coral reefs

In the wake of the Lahaina wildfire, scientists and locals grapple with the potential toxic runoff into Maui's coral ecosystems. Audrey McAvoy reports for the Associated Press.

Keep reading...Show less

Rising temperatures threaten inmates in US prisons

In a comprehensive study, rising temperatures pose a significant threat to the health of prisoners in the U.S., especially in Texas and Florida.

Nina Lakhani reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less
Satellite set to change the game in global methane monitoring
Credit: NASA/Unsplash

Satellite set to change the game in global methane monitoring

A new privately-funded satellite, MethaneSAT, aims to revolutionize how we detect and quantify global methane emissions, crucial in the fight against climate change.

Jill English reports for CBC News.

Keep reading...Show less

Climate activists take over Lyon chemical facility

Hundreds of activists stormed a chemical plant in Lyon, France, to protest against the production of 'forever chemicals', demanding cleanup of pollution and compensation for affected locals.

Euronews reports.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
plastic chemical recycling

What is chemical recycling?

While industry claims it could be part of a circular plastics economy, experts say that chemical recycling is extremely damaging to the environment and provides no real benefits.

algoma steel sault pollution

Cleaner steelmaking can’t come fast enough for this Northern Ontario city

Algoma Steel continues to exceed Canada’s standard air pollution limits for cancer-causing compounds and struggles with spills as it pushes toward a “green” makeover.

petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database monitors fires, flares, spills and other accidents at petrochemical plants.

petrochemical houston gulf coast

Lives “devastated’ by petrochemical industry pollution in Texas: Report

New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.

LNG gulf coast

LNG production comes with a price, Gulf Coast communities warn

US takes the global lead on liquid natural gas production and export, as economic promises and environmental worries collide.

LNG gulf coast

La producción de gas natural licuado tiene un precio, advierten las comunidades la Costa del Golfo

Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.

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