Fires set stage for irreversible forest losses in Australia

Fires set stage for irreversible forest losses in Australia

SOURCE: AP

DATE: January 19, 2020

SNIP: Heat waves and drought have fueled bigger and more frequent fires in parts of Australia, so far this season torching some 40,000 square miles (104,000 square kilometers), an area about as big as Ohio.

With blazes still raging in the country’s southeast, government officials are drawing up plans to reseed burned areas to speed up forest recovery that could otherwise take decades or even centuries.

But some scientists and forestry experts doubt that reseeding and other intervention efforts can match the scope of the destruction. The fires since September have killed 28 people and burned more than 2,600 houses.

Before the recent wildfires, ecologists divided up Australia’s native vegetation into two categories: fire-adapted landscapes that burn periodically, and those that don’t burn. In the recent fires, that distinction lost meaning — even rainforests and peat swamps caught fire, likely changing them forever.

Flames have blazed through jungles dried out by drought, such as Eungella National Park, where shrouds of mist have been replaced by smoke.

“Anybody would have said these forests don’t burn, that there’s not enough material and they are wet. Well they did,” said forest restoration expert Sebastian Pfautsch, a research fellow at Western Sydney University.

“I’m expecting major areas of (tree) loss this year, mainly because we will not have sufficient seed to sow them,” said Owen Bassett of Forest Solutions, a private company that works with government agencies to re-seed forests by helicopter following fires.

In both Australia and western North America, climate experts say, fires will continue burning with increased frequency as warming temperatures and drier weather transform ecosystems around the globe.

The catastrophic scale of blazes in so many places offers the “clearest signal yet” that climate change is driving fire activity, said Leroy Westerling, a fire science professor at the University of Alberta.

UN Warns of Extreme Weather Ahead After Declaring Hottest Decade in Recorded History

UN Warns of Extreme Weather Ahead After Declaring Hottest Decade in Recorded History

SOURCE: Science Alert

DATE: January 16, 2020

SNIP: The past decade has been the hottest on record, the UN said Wednesday, warning that the higher temperatures were expected to fuel numerous extreme weather events in 2020 and beyond.​

The World Meteorological Organization, which based its findings on analysis of leading international datasets, said increases in global temperatures had already had dire consequences, pointing to “retreating ice, record sea levels, increasing ocean heat and acidification, and extreme weather”.

WMO said its research also confirmed data released by the European Union’s climate monitor last week showing that 2019 was the second hottest year on record, after 2016.

Unfortunately, we expect to see much extreme weather throughout 2020 and the coming decades, fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said.

The UN agency said that average global temperatures during both the past five-year (2015-2019) and 10-year (2010-2019) periods were the highest ever recorded.

Since more than 90 percent of excess heat is stored in the world’s oceans, their heat content is a good way to quantify the rate of global warming, WMO said.

Conservationists said the UN agency’s findings were to be expected.

“It is no surprise that 2019 was the second hottest year on record – nature has been persistently reminding us that we have to pick up the pace,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice, calling for dramatic measures to halt the warming trend.

Huge ‘hot blob’ in Pacific Ocean killed nearly a million seabirds

Huge ‘hot blob’ in Pacific Ocean killed nearly a million seabirds

SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: January 16, 2020

SNIP: A million seabirds died in less than a year as a result of a giant “blob” of hot ocean water off the coast of New Zealand, according to new research.

A study released by the University of Washington found the birds, called the common murre, probably died of starvation between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016.

Most dead seabirds never wash ashore, so while 62,000 dead or dying murres were found along the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California, researchers estimate the total number is closer to 1 million.

Alaska saw the most birds wash up. In Prince William Sound in southern Alaska, more than 4,500 bird carcasses were found every kilometer, or 0.62 miles.

The blob stems from a years-long severe marine heatwave, believed to be caused by an anticyclone weather system that first appeared in 2013. A weather phenomenon known as El Niño accelerated the warming temperatures beginning in 2015 and, by 2016, the rising heat resulted in water temperatures nearly 11F (6C) above average.

Anticyclones form when a mass of air cools, contracts and becomes more dense, increasing the weight of the atmosphere and the surface air pressure.

Heat maps at the time showed a massive red blob growing, spanning more than 380,000 sq miles (1 million sq km). That’s nearly 1.5 times the size of Texas or four times larger than New Zealand.

The study found that the murres mostly likely starved to death. The seabird must eat half its body weight to survive, but food grew scarce amid intense competition from other creatures. Warming ocean waters gave fish such as salmon and halibut a metabolism boost, causing a fight for survival over the limited supply of smaller fish.

Researchers also uncovered other effects, including a massive bloom of harmful algae along the US west coast that cost fisheries millions of dollars in revenue. Other animals also died off, including sea lions, tufted puffins and baleen whales.

The murres’ population also took a hit. According to the study, a limited food supply resulted in reduced breeding colonies across the entire region. Between the 2015 and 2016 breeding seasons, more than 15 colonies did not produce a single chick. Researchers say those estimates could be low since they only monitor a quarter of all colonies.

Meanwhile, another huge heat blob has formed off the Washington coast and up into the Gulf of Alaska, and is growing.

Ocean Warming Is Speeding Up, with Devastating Consequences, Study Shows

Ocean Warming Is Speeding Up, with Devastating Consequences, Study Shows

SOURCE: Inside Climate News

DATE: January 14, 2020

SNIP: The world’s oceans are warming at a rapidly increasing pace, new research shows, and the heat is having devastating effects on marine life and intensifying extreme weather.

Last year, the oceans were warmer than any time since measurements began over 60 years ago, according to a study published Monday in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

While global surface temperature measurements go back farther in time, the measurement of ocean heat content is considered one of the most effective ways to show how fast Earth is warming because more than 90 percent of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases goes into the oceans.

The new study, the first to analyze ocean temperatures for 2019, was based on two independent data sets and used a new way of filling data gaps to measure ocean temperatures going back to the 1950s.

When the scientists compared ocean temperature data from the last three decades (1987-2019) to the three decades before that (1955-1986), they found the rate of warming had increased 450 percent, “reflecting a major increase in the rate of global climate change.”

Measured by a common energy unit used in physics, the oceans absorbed 228 sextillion joules of heat in the past 25 years. That’s equivalent to adding the energy of 3.6 billion Hiroshima-size atom bomb explosions to the oceans, said the study’s lead author, Lijing Cheng, with the International Center for Climate and Environmental Sciences at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics.

The warming of the oceans has widespread effects. It causes marine heat waves that kill fish and coral reefs, fuels hurricanes and coastal downpours, spawns harmful toxin-producing algal blooms and also contributes to heat waves on land, said study co-author Kevin Trenberth, with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The new evaluation of ocean heat content reinforces other recent signs of global warming. This past decade was the warmest on record since measurements started, and 2019 ended up the second-warmest year on record, though it was the warmest in the oceans.

New climate models suggest Paris goals may be out of reach

New climate models suggest Paris goals may be out of reach

SOURCE: Phys.Org

DATE: January 14, 2020

SNIP: New climate models show carbon dioxide is a more potent greenhouse gas than previously understood, a finding that could push the Paris treaty goals for capping global warming out of reach, scientists have told AFP.

Developed in parallel by separate teams in half-a-dozen countries, the models—which will underpin revised UN temperature projections next year—suggest scientists have for decades consistently underestimated the warming potential of CO2.

Vastly more data and computing power has become available since the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections were finalised in 2013.

“We have better models now,” Olivier Boucher, head of the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace Climate Modelling Centre in Paris, told AFP, adding that they “represent current climate trends more accurately”.

The most influential projections from government-backed teams in the US, Britain, France and Canada point to a future in which CO2 concentrations that have long been equated with a 3C world would more likely heat the planet’s surface by four or five degrees.

For more than a century, scientists have puzzled over a deceptively simple question: if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubles, how much will Earth’s surface warm over time?

The resulting temperature increase is known as Earth’s “climate sensitivity”.

That number has been hard to pin down due to a host of elusive variables. Whether oceans and forests, for example, will continue to absorb more than half of the CO2 emitted by humanity is hard to predict.

“How clouds evolve in a warmer climate and whether they will exert a tempering or amplifying effect has long been a major source of uncertainty,” explained Imperial College London researcher Joeri Rogelj, the lead IPCC author on the global carbon budget—the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted without exceeding a given temperature cap.

The new models reflect a better understanding of cloud dynamics in at least two ways that reinforce the warming impact of CO2.

Zelinka said new research had confirmed high clouds in the bottom layer of Earth’s atmosphere boost the Sun’s radiation—and global heating accentuates that dynamic.

“Another big uncertainty has been how low clouds will change, such as stratocumulus decks of the west coast of continents,” he said.

“You have 12 or 13 models showing sensitivity which is no longer 3C, but rather 5C or 6C with a doubling of CO2,” he told AFP. “What is particularly worrying is that these are not the outliers.”

Models from France, the US Department of Energy, Britain’s Met Office and Canada show climate sensitivity of 4.9C, 5.3C, 5.5C and 5.6C respectively, Zelinka said.

“You have to take these models seriously—they are highly developed, state-of-the-art.”

Among the 27 new models examined in Zelinka’s study, these were also among the ones that best matched climate change over the last 75 years, a further validation of their accuracy.

Recent observations suggest this type of cloud cover decreases with warming, which means less of the Sun’s energy gets bounced back into space by white surfaces.

“Climate sensitivity has been in the range of 1.5C to 4.5C for more than 30 years. If it is now moving to between 3C and 7C, that would be tremendously dangerous.

Native Species or Invasive? The Distinction Blurs as the World Warms

Native Species or Invasive? The Distinction Blurs as the World Warms

SOURCE: Yale e360

DATE: January 14, 2020

SNIP: Across the warming globe, a mass exodus of tens of thousands of species is transforming the distribution of biodiversity — and challenging fundamental tenets in conservation policy and science. Are policymakers, land managers, and conservationists prepared?

In recent years, scientists have documented countless species shifting their ranges toward the poles, higher into the mountains, and deeper into the seas in response to the changing climate. Deciduous shrubs of willow, birch, and alder have spread into the low Arctic tundra. Brightly colored tropical parrotfish and rabbitfish have arrived in the temperate kelp forests of the eastern Mediterranean. Elkhorn corals from the Caribbean now sprout in thickets off the coast of Galveston, Texas.

The trend is expected to continue as the climate crisis deepens, with species that societies rely upon for a wide range of economic, cultural, and recreational value shifting their ranges to survive. “The entire trajectory of natural capital, from aesthetic to economic,” says University of Florida wildlife ecologist Brett Scheffers, “is going to be moving.”

The coming exodus, Scheffers and other scientists say, will require a transformation in the way we think about wildlife management and conservation — and a reevaluation of the traditional native-alien dichotomy that has governed it. For decades, conservation biology has characterized the movement of species into new habitats as potential invasions of alien species with the capacity to threaten local ecosystems and already resident species, leading to the formulation of policies to reflexively repel the newcomers. This approach, and its underlying classification of wild species as either “native” (and thus worthy of protections) or “alien” (and thus likely not) has been the subject of growing controversy in recent years.

Critics such as author Emma Marris and Macalester College biologist Mark Davis, among others, have pointed out that only a small subset of “alien” species wreak damage on already resident species, and that the categorization of wild creatures as either “native” or “alien” obscures as much as it elucidates. Indeed, the influential, albeit contested “tens rule” in invasion biology, validated in a range of species and locales, holds that only 10 percent of alien species establish themselves in new habitats and only 10 percent of those are likely to cause unwanted harm to economies, ecosystems, or human health.

Now, a growing number of scientists say that conservation policies based on the native-alien dichotomy could actually threaten biodiversity. Today’s climate-driven range shifts are “one of the only solutions for species to adapt to climate change,” says ecologist Nathalie Pettorelli, who studies the impact of global environmental changes on biodiversity at the Institute of Zoology in London. Ensuring that wild species can make life-saving movements and establish self-sustaining populations in new habitats, while also protecting already-resident species, will require new ways of evaluating species — not just on their origins and historical value to society but on their ecological functions and how they can contribute to the novel ecosystems of the future.

Another reform proposed by a group of nearly twenty experts in invasion biology calls for expanding the native-alien dichotomy. The traditional classification of species into “native” and “alien” presupposes that the “natives” are long-resident species, in contrast to “aliens” carried long distances by human trade and travel. But with thousands of species shifting their ranges in response to climate change, that distinction fails to capture the diversity of wild species’ claims to conservation protection, University of Vienna conservation biologist Franz Essl and other invasion biologists say. Essl and his colleagues have proposed a new category called “neonatives,” which would consist of species that have moved at least 100 kilometers (or a few hundred meters in altitude) beyond their historic ranges (as established in 1950), in response to environmental changes.

For some long-time critics of the native-alien paradigm in conservation, it’s the fundamental principle of evaluating species based on their origins that needs to go. “Whether because of climate or because people move them, species need to be evaluated on their own effects,” says Macalester College’s Davis, “and not on whether they are natives or new natives or non-natives or non-natives moved by humans.” Critics such as Davis essentially call for the dissolution of invasion biology and restoration biology as they’ve been traditionally defined. “I don’t see the value of keeping those distinctions,” he says.

Other experts question whether climate-displaced species should be characterized as unwanted intruders at all. University of Tennessee biologist Daniel Simberloff and University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy, for example, point out that species on the move under their own steam will likely be readily distinguishable from the disruptive alien species introduced into new habitats through global trade and travel. The difference between a tropical fish swimming into cooler waters and a rodent from India being deposited onto a remote Pacific island, Simberloff says, is “huge.”

Unlike species introduced through trade, climate-displaced species on the move will be shifting their ranges alongside other species they’ve co-evolved with, with insects shifting in sync with the plants they feed upon and vice versa. “They are moving up mountains, and moving north, slowly,” he says. “The animals that are part of those biomes can track them.”

Scheffers, Pettorelli, and others suspect otherwise. They point out that climate-displaced species may be as ecologically novel in their new habitats as trade-dispersed aliens and could be just as disruptive to ecosystems, economies, and cultures as traditionally defined alien species. Already, mackerel arriving in Iceland from Britain have led Britain to accuse Iceland of “stealing its fish.” Capelin that have left Iceland for cooler waters have devastated a $143 million fishery. The movements of iconic species such as palm trees in Florida, threatened by disease-spreading treehopper bugs that likely blew in on a hurricane, and moose in Minnesota, which may be forced northward by the state’s booming tick populations, will cause both economic and cultural losses if they collapse or shift beyond state borders. Under traditional management approaches, the movements of such species could generate counterproductive efforts to protect them as natives in places they’re leaving, or worse, repel them as aliens in places they enter.

Historically, Pecl, Scheffers, and Davis point out, conservation policies have targeted species for eradication even when they’ve shifted their ranges gradually under their own steam. Strix varia, the barred owl, extended its range westward from eastern North America thanks to a corridor of trees created by human settlements across the Great Plains. In 2015, wildlife officials launched a $5 million campaign to shoot thousands of the newcomers in the Pacific Northwest for fear of their impact on local spotted owls.

Others have been targeted even when they provide ecosystem or cultural benefits that may neutralize or outweigh their burdens on already resident species. In California, wildlife officials attempted to exterminate Spartina cordgrass, introduced to the West from the salt marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, despite the fact that it provided foraging and nesting sites for endangered California clapper rails. Local activists have similarly targeted nearly half-a-million Tasmanian blue gum trees in the San Francisco Bay area for destruction — claiming the non-native gums are a greater fire threat than native trees, a charge that some fire experts and biologists contest. The defenders of the blue gum trees in the Bay Area argue that the trees provide valuable habitat, carbon sequestration, and shade, and that thousands of gallons of herbicides would be required to ensure their demise.

The categorization of wild species into natives and aliens was established in conservation and entrenched in the U.S. economy during an era in which the most salient introductions of novel species arrived via global trade and travel. In today’s era of species on the move, in which the climate crisis tips thousands into motion, that world no longer exists. The challenge is incorporating this new reality into the way we think about and manage the wild creatures around us.

Ocean temperatures hit record high as rate of heating accelerates

Ocean temperatures hit record high as rate of heating accelerates

SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: January 13, 2020

SNIP: The heat in the world’s oceans reached a new record level in 2019, showing “irrefutable and accelerating” heating of the planet.

The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities.

The new analysis shows the past five years are the top five warmest years recorded in the ocean and the past 10 years are also the top 10 years on record. The amount of heat being added to the oceans is equivalent to every person on the planet running 100 microwave ovens all day and all night.

Hotter oceans lead to more severe storms and disrupt the water cycle, meaning more floods, droughts and wildfires, as well as an inexorable rise in sea level. Higher temperatures are also harming life in the seas, with the number of marine heatwaves increasing sharply.

The most common measure of global heating is the average surface air temperature, as this is where people live. But natural climate phenomena such as El Niño events mean this can be quite variable from year to year.

“The oceans are really what tells you how fast the Earth is warming,” said Prof John Abraham at the University of St Thomas, in Minnesota, US, and one of the team behind the new analysis. “Using the oceans, we see a continued, uninterrupted and accelerating warming rate of planet Earth. This is dire news.”

We found that 2019 was not only the warmest year on record, it displayed the largest single-year increase of the entire decade, a sobering reminder that human-caused heating of our planet continues unabated,” said Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University, US, and another team member.

The analysis, published in the journal Advances In Atmospheric Sciences, uses ocean data from every available source. Most data is from the 3,800 free-drifting Argo floats dispersed across the oceans, but also from torpedo-like bathythermographs dropped from ships in the past.

The results show heat increasing at an accelerating rate as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. The rate from 1987 to 2019 is four and a half times faster than that from 1955 to 1986. The vast majority of oceans regions are showing an increase in thermal energy.

“The data we have is irrefutable, but we still have hope because humans can still take action,” he said. “We just haven’t taken meaningful action yet.”

Revealed: US listed climate activist group as ‘extremists’ alongside mass killers

Revealed: US listed climate activist group as ‘extremists’ alongside mass killers

SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: January 13, 2020

SNIP: A group of US environmental activists engaged in non-violent civil disobedience targeting the oil industry have been listed in internal Department of Homeland Security documents as “extremists” and some of its members listed alongside white nationalists and mass killers, documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.

The group have been dubbed the Valve Turners, after closing the valves on pipelines in four states carrying crude oil from Canada’s tar sands on 11 October 2016 which accounted for about 15% of US daily consumption. It was described as the largest coordinated action of its kind and for a few hours the oil stopped flowing.

The five climate activists, members of Climate Direct Action, cut their way through fencing and turned the valves. The activists notified the energy companies whose pipelines were being disrupted and posted videos of their protest online and waited patiently to be arrested.

They have since been dubbed the “Valve Turners”, profiled in the New York Times magazine and featured in a recent documentary titled The Reluctant Radical. Their trials have also tested the willingness of courts to allow climate activists to make use of the necessity defense – the idea that a criminal action is justified if it helps to prevent greater future harm – as part of a legal strategy.

But the group’s actions attracted the attention of the DHS.

In a recent intelligence bulletin evaluating domestic terrorism threats between 2018 and 2020, the department included the Valve Turners and described the group as “suspected environmental rights extremists”.

The document also listed two of the group’s members alongside violent white supremacists and other extremists who have engaged in mass killings, including the man behind the racist 2015 slaying of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

The document obtained by the not-for-profit Property of the People through a Foia request defines domestic terrorism as “any act of violence that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources” and that is intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or government body. The assessment is directed at departmental leadership and is based on a review of roughly 80 violent incidents between 2014 and 2017, according to the document.

In addition to providing an overview of domestic terrorism threats the document includes an appendix summarizing select incidents over the past few years. Two of the Valve Turners are listed alongside violent white supremacists such as Dylann Roof and James Fields who have both been convicted of murdering innocent civilians. Roof killed nine black churchgoers in a rampage in South Carolina. Fields drove his car into a group of activists protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and injuring at least 19 others.

The document also states that “racial and environmentally themed ideologies” were among the primary drivers of terrorist attacks in the United States during this time.

Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote in an email that

the DHS framing is “highly misleading because white supremacists are responsible for the bulk of this violence and almost all of the fatalities that result”, German said in an email. “There is little evidence,” he added, “that environmentalists have engaged in the types of deadly violence that would meet the statutory definition of domestic terrorism, as codified by Congress”.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Sam Jessup, one of the activists named in the document, said the bulletin sheds light on the role law enforcement and intelligence agencies have played in suppressing dissent.

“Equating mass murder by white supremacists with what Michael and I did is totally obscene,” Jessup said in an email. “This whole infrastructure of so-called security has done little more than secure the future of the fossil fuel industry by terrorizing people into silence.”

Jessup, a 34-year-old who had served as a driver and videographer live-streaming the action in North Dakota. Michael Foster, a former family therapist who lives in Seattle, turned the valve.

Foster said even though the action involved a high level of legal risk, it was a small price to pay in light of the cascading impacts of climate change.

“The only way to force society to change fast enough is to refuse to participate and fill the jails,” Foster said.

Both he and Jessup were convicted on felony conspiracy charges and Foster spent six months in jail. During closing arguments the prosecutor compared Foster to the Unabomber and the 9/11 hijackers. He is now on probation and barred from engaging in direct action protest for another two years.

In the more than three years since the action, several states have passed legislation making it a crime to trespass on property containing critical infrastructure.The Trump administration has advocated for stiffer penalties against activists who engage in non-violent direct action targeting fossil fuel infrastructure.

Terrorism police list Extinction Rebellion as extremist ideology

Terrorism police list Extinction Rebellion as extremist ideology

SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: January 10, 2020

SNIP: Counter-terrorism police placed the non-violent group Extinction Rebellion (XR) on a list of extremist ideologies that should be reported to the authorities running the Prevent programme, which aims to catch those at risk of committing atrocities, the Guardian has learned.

The climate emergency campaign group was included in a 12-page guide produced by counter-terrorism police in the south-east titled Safeguarding young people and adults from ideological extremism, which is marked as “official”.

XR featured alongside threats to national security such as neo-Nazi terrorism and a pro-terrorist Islamist group. The guide, aimed at police officers, government organisations and teachers who by law have to report concerns about radicalisation, was dated last November.

It says that issues to look out for include people who speak in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution”.

In the guide, people are advised to listen and look out for young people who “neglect to attend school” or “participate in planned school walkouts” – an allusion to the school strikes for the climate, a global movement of which the activist Greta Thunberg is a lead proponent. Thousands of UK pupils, and millions worldwide, walked out of school last year in protest at government inaction on the climate crisis.

The document also flags young people taking part in non-violent direct action, such as sit-down protests, banner drops or “writing environmentally themed graffiti”.

The guide, bearing the counter-terrorism policing logo, urges those in “regular, direct contact with young people or members of the public” to look out for various warning signs and consider a referral to Prevent if they believe someone is falling prey to “ideological extremism”.

UPDATE: When the Guardian first asked police about the guidance, officials said they would review it. Following further questions, counter-terrorism police confirmed it had been circulated to “statutory partners” and had been recalled. They said they now accepted that the protest group was not extremist.

Pain, cancer, death: Michigan families devastated by toxic chemicals in their water

Pain, cancer, death: Michigan families devastated by toxic chemicals in their water

SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: January 10, 2020

SNIP: In the years before 2017, Sandy Wynn-Stelt and her husband had suspicions about the water they drew from a well on their House Street property in the Michigan town of Belmont. She attributed the bad taste to it being well water, but the “weird film” on their morning coffee was difficult to explain.

By June 2017, state officials alerted her that PFAS from a nearby, decades-old dump belonging to Wolverine World Wide, a shoe giant best known for the Hush Puppy brand, had contaminated their well.

Tests found shocking levels. The Environmental Protection Agency’s PFAS advisory water limit is 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Health officials found levels in the well as high as 90,000 ppt.

Wynn-Stelt told the Guardian she now suspects the PFAS-laden product Wolverine uses to make its shoes water and stain resistant was behind that weird film.

“I now know it was probably Scotchgard,” she said.

Wynn-Stelt and her neighbors in this small west Michigan community are among the PFAS crisis’s human toll – those suffering the horrors that await humans with too much of the toxic chemical in their bodies.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 5,000 fluorinated compounds dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down and there’s no known way to destroy them. They’re found in everything from food packaging to clothing to eyeliner to firefighting foam. The chemicals are also strongly linked to cancer, low birth weight, autoimmune disorders, thyroid issues, and a range of other serious diseases.

By the time Wynn-Stelt learned of the contamination, it was too late. She and her husband, Joe Stelt, had been drinking dangerous levels of PFAS for years, and Stelt had died from liver cancer in March 2016. The level of PFAS in Wynn-Stelt’s blood soared to 750 times that of the national average. She now suffers from recurrent thyroid problems and developed gout, and more serious issues are likely. She has been left “scared to death” and overwhelmed.

As the chemicals gather around the planet, public health officials have found over 700 contaminated sites and waterways around the country, and the PFAS crisis’s breadth in coming into focus. Researchers recently identified dangerous levels in rain, and areas around military bases are regularly contaminated. By some estimates, 21 million Americans are drinking PFAS-contaminated water – in the fall, an environmental group found the chemicals in California and Kentucky’s water supplies.

However, no state has more contaminated sites than Michigan, although officials say that’s because the state is conducting more tests to look for PFAS. Biosolids contaminated with it were discovered two years ago in Lapeer, where a chrome plating facility discharged the chemicals into the Flint River. A few hours north in Oscoda, the air force is refusing to clean up contamination from a shuttered base, while officials have found contaminated wells at schools and daycare centers across the state.

Still, PFAS production and use is unabated in the state as Republicans in Michigan, Congress and the White House have successfully blocked stricter regulations.