The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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The Management Regrets to Inform You That…

…Autumn has apparently been cancelled for the Mi-Atlantic region this year.

Seriously, today was a gorgeous summer day in October. This isn’t normal. The trees aren’t turning. The soybean harvest is being delayed, according to a farmer I spoke with today, because while the plants are turning yellow more or less on schedule, without cool weather the beans themselves are not hardening. Apparently different aspects of the plant’s senescence are triggered by different factors, and this year those factors are out of step (and this in a year where the same farmer had to turn much of her fruit crop to jam before unseasonable rains rotted it). And while it would be a mistake to read to much into a warm day, or even a warm few weeks, the weirdness of this particular October is not my imagination. For almost two weeks, now, the temperature has hovered between five and fifteen degrees above the historical average for our area for this time of year.

And we’re getting another hurricane later this week. And yes, as predicted by recent research, it seems to be undergoing rapid intensification. I’m not sure if that link will still work after the hurricane has passed, so the short summary is that at noon, GMT, on October 8th, it was a tropical storm and by 9 PM GMT on the 9th it had become a cat 3. It will downgrade once it hits land, track across the southern US, dumping rain on places just flooded by Hurricane Charlotte, on its way to rejoin the Atlantic near my house, where it will re-intensify into a tropical storm and erode our beaches. Lovely.

This seems a good time to release the new IPCC Special Report, which says we have until 2030 to avert catastrophe, and it’s going to take a lot of effort and change and dedication, which, by the way, the President of the United States has no interest in helping with whatsoever. I have argued elsewhere in this blog that he was, in fact, hired to prevent meaningful climate action.

I worry that this blog might sometimes seem unpleasantly negative at times, all doom and gloom–although, truth be told, I often find comfort in the words of someone else acknowledging the problem. In any case, a friend of mine confessed recently to a sleepless night in response to the IPCC report. And I’ve felt more or less asleep since President Trump’s election, for similar reasons. The truth is difficult to deal with, these days.

So, let’s focus on solutions. How do we get to sleep and then wake up and do something?

Atticus Finch, the fictional, but admirable, father from To Kill a Mockingbird, defines courage as  “when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

So, I’ve been thinking–I’m feeling dis-couraged, so how do I re-courage? Where does courage come from?

I had made up my mind to ask a wise man I know, and actually had asked, when someone else posted a picture on Facebook that seemed utterly unrelated, and was probably intended to be utterly unrelated, except it wasn’t.

The picture depicts a man sitting on the porch of a rather idyllic-looking cabin, in company with a large dog and an adventurous-looking tortoise. The man, my friend, is playing a banjo–badly, as he later explained, and “it is no practical use to society,” but he loves playing.

On the contrary,” I wrote, “doing things one loves is how one stays sane enough to be of practical use.”

I had no intention of writing any such thing until I wrote it, and it answered my question. That’s where courage comes from–it comes from love. It comes from joy. Not necessary from loving that which is endangered–that can be highly motivating sometimes, but absolutely debilitating at other times. I’m talking about anything that brings joy. Joy edges despair out.

So, I have taken up playing the tin whistle again. And today I mailed off a donation to the League of Conservation Voters.

You?

 

 

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Update on Hurricanes

Some years ago, I wrote that although global warming seems like it should make hurricanes worse, we can’t really say that it has. Until just a few decades ago, if a hurricane happened not to pass over human observers or equipment, we might not know it existed. It’s not that we have no data before that, it’s just not a complete picture. How can we compare “before” and “after” when we don’t have a full “before”? There are other complications, too.

Of course, as I pointed out, all that applies only if “worse” is taken to mean more frequent or with higher wind-speeds. Since the most dangerous part of a hurricane is always its storm-surge, which is unambiguously worsened by sea-level rise, another answer to the question is that yes, global warming does make hurricanes worse and is going to keep doing so as long as the seas keep rising.

In any case, I didn’t expect any of that to change any time soon–but it might have just done so.

The problem of inadequate “before” data is still there, but a team from Stony Brook University has just modeled Hurricane Florence as it would have been without anthropogenic climate change–essentially, they used the models used to forecast hurricane behavior, but altered the model so as to simulate an un-warmed world. Because the same computer system was used to forecast both the real-world hurricane and the counterfactual one, the reliability of the system can be checked simply by comparing the real-world forecast with the actual behavior of Hurricane Florence–the forecast was pretty good, as it turned out.

So, all of you who were under Hurricane Florence? It’s official. Those of you who saw the heaviest rainfall–you saw 50% more of it because of climate change. And if you live on the coast, the storm was about 50 miles wider when it made landfall than it would have been, so at least some of you were hit by a storm surge that would otherwise have passed you by.

Now, when I say “it’s official,” I don’t actually know whether there is any controversy around this approach. I don’t have an inside view of either climatology or meteorology, though I do have friends I may be able to ask. So we may have to wait a while to see how this is received, but so far it seems legit to me.

While we’re discussing new hurricane research, it seems there are two more variables to how “bad” a hurricane can be, and climate change looks to be making them both worse.

One is the speed at which storms travel. The slower a hurricane is moving, the longer it takes to pass over your house and the more hurricane you get. That was part of the problem with Harvey, which simply stayed put over Houston and rained for way too long. A study just published in the journal, Nature suggests that storms are, on average, getting slower, apparently because climate change is causing weakening of the air currents that move hurricanes along.

The other variable is how fast storms intensify. We’re used to tropical systems strengthening gradually over a period of days, so that if a tropical storm (wind speed no greater than 74 mph) is pointed at you and about a day away, you can go ahead and prepare for a tropical storm, or possibly a category 1 hurricane. But occasionally a storm will undergo “rapid intensification” and you can go to bed prepared for that tropical storm and wake up to find a cat 4 bearing down on you. Scary, no?

And while nobody is actually sure yet how rapid intensification works, it does seem to be happening more and more often. A recent computer simulation shows that climate change does indeed result in more of the most severe hurricanes (categories 4 and 5) and does so specifically by making rapid intensification more frequent.

So, there you have it, folks. While I’m sure more research needs to be done (doesn’t it always?) and the picture will get clearer and more sure as we learn more, climate change is making hurricanes worse. That means worse in the future and it means worse already.

So when I say we all need to vote for climate-sane candidates willing to re-instate Paris? This is why.


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A Deafening Silence

Ok, so apparently this past weekend there was a major climate march “all across the nation.” The nation, in this case, being the United States. I heard about it on the news, for once, but not ahead of time.

None of my friends said anything about it, nothing showed up on social media, none of my spammy political action alerts alerted me, my own researches in the spring about what events were being planned, nothing. An online search yields very little in the way of announcements, either–had I done such a search a few weeks ago, it looks like I would have found much, either. I might have missed this one even if I’d been being a lot more assertive about looking for it than I was.

What is going on?

Why are organizers of these things not getting the word out? Do they want the media and our elected officials to underestimate the number of people who care about climate? I recognize that there is some legitimate controversy about how much good political demonstrations do, but come on, people, if you’re going to have a march, have a march!

In other news, I saw a fishing pier on the bay several inches deep in water today. I overheard a man say the flooding around his house–which has pushed up into the ditches but does not threaten his home directly–is not a problem, it’s “only” high tide. I rode a bus through a parking lot filled with salt water.

The hurricane is not due until later this week.


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What the Weatherman Said

I don’t have a lot of time to write tonight, but the thing I want to say will not take long.

Yesterday,Dan Satterfield, our local TV weatherman on WBOC, said something that caught my attention. I have not been able to find the clip online, so I’m quoting him from memory:

In all my years covering the weather, I have never seen this many extreme rain events in one year before. It’s world-wide. It’s because of the warm oceans.

He didn’t say “climate change” but it’s clearly implied–whether he intended to imply it or not. In his professional judgment, this year has been highly atypical worldwide, and it has been that way because of warm oceans worldwide. Could these warm oceans be the result of some short-term cycle? I don’t know, maybe. But such cycles interact with climate change, both exist–and you’d think if Mr. Satterfield had a ready explanation through some cool meteorological phenomenon he would have said so. He clearly gets too much of a kick out of talking weather not to.

This was the statement of a man who is puzzled and disturbed.

Honestly, we don’t hear climate change acknowledged, even obliquely, often enough in the public media. It’s all around us and every day, but no one talks about it. Perhaps more importantly, remember how I was complaining that I couldn’t find any information on how unusual the current level of unusual weather might be?

Well, sounds like somebody knows.


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I’m Singing Happy Birthday

A little under a year ago, I sat down to write a post about my birthday and changed my mind–Hurricane Harvey was in progress and provided the more important story, especially since I had a friend inside the storm who was acting as a self-appointed citizen journalist. I chose to use my platform to amplify her words.

Today, I sat down again to write about my birthday. I looked over old posts, looking to see if I’d written any previous birthday climate posts, and I found the article about Harvey. I haven’t heard any mention of the storm in months. The country has moved on, but many of the people impacted by the storm haven’t–they can’t. Disasters like this last longer than the news cycle allows for them. They continue for years, sometimes decades, warping lives and dragging down the national economy and national spirit. We are stronger than Harvey. We were stronger than Katrina. We are a very strong nation. But how many of these things can we carry?

A number of news outlets are doing Harvey anniversary stories–here is an excellent one from the Washington Post–and I’ll follow their lead by re-posting an edited version of my original article. I recommend readers make a practice of checking up on all disasters a couple of years later. It only takes a quick search online.

By friend, by the way, is OK. Her house did not flood and neither did that of her daughter (whose words I also amplified for an article elsewhere), but this is their city we’re talking about. It’s there home. Every one of this events lands in somebody’s home.

I have a Jimmy Buffet song in my head, it having been by birthday this week:

Here I’m singing happy birthday

better think about the wish I make

This year gone by ain’t been a piece of cake.

No, it hasn’t been. Not for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons.

Voices in the Dark

Social media is an odd but effective way to watch an unfolding disaster. Not that it can replace journalism, we do need fact-checking, context, analysis, etc., but the unfiltered voices of the multitudes add an immediacy that the news alone cannot match.

This time the voice in the dark has been a self-appointed citizen journalist, my friend, Bridgette Mongeon. I quote excerpts from her throughout this article with her permission.

Dear friends and family,
Thank you for your prayers during this approaching storm. The rain fall that is expected in Houston and all along the Texas coast is astronomical. I have lived in this home through Ike 2008, Allison in 2001, and our first year we moved in was Alicia 1983. Allison, was a tropical storm that played havoc in our area. Allison was just before 9/11 and was a double whammy on our psyche that I still feel rise up in my belly. Somehow the two are connected and re-stimulating.

I do not know what to expect for my immediate neighborhood. This area has had a tremendous influx of new building and I have no idea what that means for the flow of that much water. I am not evacuating . So many have to evacuate from the south. We have been asked to keep off the roads. I also need to keep an eye on the studio as well as my home…. Harvey is stalling and picking up intensity, which means it could hit land as a cat 4. If people in Houston expected a cat 4 or 5 we all would have been boarding up the windows…. Either way, we are on the east side of the hurricane, which we in the south call, “the dirty side” This, as it sounds, is not favorable…. Prayers go to all the people south of us and along the coast. They are evacuating quite a few people today. Evacuations can often be a challenge and dangerous events because of the amount of people. It is their safety that is priority right now.

Be safe Texans. Thanks for your prayers and well wishes everyone else. I’ll update when and if I can.

August 25, 8:13 AM

Since then, she has been posting regular updates for both local residents (tornado warnings, notices of shelter openings) and people farther afield (a detailed description of drainage patterns in the Greater Houston Area). She still has electricity, internet, and news. Not everybody in her area do, and some evidently have internet but not much else, so she’s acting as an information hub. Even the official journalists are being impaired by the storm–one of her local TV stations has flooded and is off the air. She can hear tornadoes, spun off by the hurricane. She reports that reservoirs upstream are being opened, worsening the flooding, yes, but the alternative is a dam breach, which would be worse. She says she’s ok. Her house is not flooding, though those of some of her neighbors are. She posts cell phone video and drone video from friends showing expanses of fast, brown water.

For my non-Houston friends- to help you understand the devastation:
Houston is huge. The greater metropolitan area is circled by the Grand Parkway – which is 170 miles long. That makes the area of the circle inside the Grand Parkway over 2200 sq. miles.
2200 square miles of densely habited, urban and suburban, areas is flooded.
Imagine if the entire state of Delaware, with twice the population of Manhattan, was under water.
That’s Houston.
It’s still raining.

August 27, 10:42 PM

Reporting from Houston, Tx-The love between neighbors here is stronger than the rain, no matter what race, faith, or political party #Harvey

August 28th, 1:00 PM

A few minutes ago, I learned that of those reservoirs–the ones that began releasing water to avoid an uncontrolled flood–one has been over-topped anyway. The other may soon follow. The Houston area has received over half its typical yearly allotment of rain in the past four days alone.

The storm is heading back out to sea, where it will strengthen, before making landfall a second time, probably in Louisiana. But it’s also possible it could hit Houston twice.

An Unprecedented Storm

As is often true of big disasters, this one owes itself to multiple factors. One, obviously, is the storm itself is unusual. Not only did Harvey grow very quickly into a very powerful storm (Category 4), it then stalled right over Houston for several days, dropping all of its water in the same place, rather than over an extended track, as most storms do. This is not the first time a storm has done such a thing, but the amount of rain is literally without historical precedent. The National Weather Service frankly admitted it has no idea what the impacts are going to be and has even had to create new colors for its weather maps in order to represent the scale of this storm. This returning to sea for more energy thing is also highly unusual.

The other part of the problem–and here I’m drawing on information from Bridgette–is that Houston is prone to flooding anyway. The soil is clay-based and does not drain well, and a development boom has dramatically worsened matters by paving over a lot of ground. There is no way for most of that water to go anywhere, except by flowing down streets and through buildings. Flooding is common in parts of the city even in ordinary rainstorms. For an extraordinary rainstorm to occur here cannot help but have catastrophic results.

What the long-term results will be are not clear, yet. An online search for “economic impact of Harvey” yields varied results–that recovery will take years, that it will be quick, that economic impacts will be large and widespread, that they will be minimal. No one really knows. The storm isn’t even over. [Update: I have just completed the same search a year later, and it seems  no one has written a follow-up article on the economic impact, so we don’t know whose predictions were closest to being correct].

But two facts are worth noting.

One is that Bridgette is right; Houston, with the assistance of the rest of the nation (and even other countries–reportedly, Mexico is mobilizing to help, as it did following Katrina) is stronger than Harvey, and will survive. One of the advantages of being a very rich nation is that we can sustain billions of dollars of damage and simply pay for it. There may be bureaucratic or political hang-ups, we don’t know yet, and the physical acts of clean-up and rebuilding will take time, but we can do this.

The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that we’re not just looking at paying for clean-up and repair. Houston is the fifth-largest economy in the US, and it’s taking the better part of a week off. Zero output. None. Bad news. Houston is also the home of much of American oil refining. Right now, some refineries are closed because workers can’t drive in to work, there is no damage (or hadn’t been, as of yesterday evening) but that could change. There are other Houston-based businesses taking a hit, too, such as Sysco, the company that produces supplies for virtually every restaurant you’ve ever set foot in (seriously, look at restaurant water pitchers–they’re all exactly the same because they come from the same place). The United States as a whole is not in danger, we will get through this, but Harvey is not a local problem. It’s national, possibly global.

The one thing the flooding in Houston is not is the fault of local officials for not evacuating everybody. Bridgette, again:

We have learned from the many storms that there is a way to evacuate. The process is that the lower lying areas or those that are first in harm’s way must be the priority. If everyone from Houston got on the freeways and evacuated, then those in real trouble could not get out. An example was the horrific Hurrican Rita evacuation in 2005. Rita was just weeks after Katrina. And Rita was going to be stronger than Katrina. We were all a little shell shocked down here. During Hurricane Rita, people panicked and according to Wiki “An estimated 2.5 – 3.7 million people fled before Rita’s landfall, making it one of the largest evacuations in United States’ history.”

I was here. I stayed. Here is what happened. It was wall to wall cars. No one could move. It was hot, and gas ran out in the cars on the road. No one could get gas in to help the stranded. I fielded phone calls from friends who were caught in traffic for hours. Many finally turned around, but that was impossible because the city then opened the southbound to go north. It was excruciatingly hot and dangerous. I see the reports say that 90-118 people died even before the storm. A bus of elderly started on fire, and all were killed. These same roads and feeder roads that people traveled on are now under water in this storm. Evacuation of so many people is impossible. And, remember no one could understand how the other factors would play in this storm [unprecedented rain, recent development boom]. The weather men do an excellent job of predicting, but they can’t be sure. People prepared the best they could. Some did bug out.

I’m proud of how those in authority handled and are handling things, and I’m here. I can tell you now, after living through Allison, Houston has a long row to hoe, and at this writing, until mean big brother Harvey decides to quit picking on us and go away, we won’t know how bad things will be. We will recover because Houston is stronger than Harvey, but one thing is sure, in my book, this is no one’s fault.

August 29, 1:00 AM [emphasis mine]

So far, the confirmed death toll from Harvey is just 14 people. If Rita is any indication as to what a full evacuation would have looked like, and given that the roads where those traffic jams occurred have flooded, the decision not to evacuate any but those at highest risk may have saved thousands of lives.

Climate Change

A storm like Harvey could have happened before anthropogenic climate change. We have no record of such a thing, but perhaps one occurred before or record began. But there are several factors which make a Harvey-type storm more likely than before we monkeyed with the climate.

First, the Gulf of Mexico is warmer now, which makes deep pools of very warm water in the Gulf much more likely. When a hurricane moves across such  pool, it can intensify suddenly–which is exactly what Harvey did. It’s also what both Katrina and Rita did, as each grew dramatically in much the same way.

Second, the air is warmer now, and warmer air carries more moisture, which means more rain. In hurricanes, it’s the wind that gets the press–we rate hurricane intensity by wind speed–but it’s the water that causes the damage. Many storms, notably Irene, a few years ago, cause their most severe damage after being downgraded out of hurricane status, simply by raining a lot. Harvey is another in this pattern.

Third, the reason Harvey parked itself right over Houston for so long is that it was trapped between two high pressure zones. This scenario ought to sound familiar, because persistent high pressure zones have been involved in almost every severe weather story I’ve covered for years, now. Droughts, heat waves, snow storms, extra-tropical rainstorms, and hurricanes have all made the transition from bad weather to unprecedented disaster, in part, because they stayed in the same place longer than normal–because of persistent blocking highs. And while it hasn’t been confirmed yet, the changes in the jet stream that create persistent blocking highs (and misplaced polar vortexes and weird, hurricane-like winter storms) may be being caused by melting of the sea ice in the arctic.

One final thing to consider; yes, we are stronger than Harvey. We were stronger than Katrina, Irene, and Sandy. We were stronger than the California superdrought that drained a state’s reservoirs, the atmospheric river storms that filled those reservoirs up again and nearly breached the Oroville dam, the heat waves that grounded airplanes in Phoenix two years running, shockingly intense wildfires, and the floods in Baton Rouge that acted like a hurricane but weren’t. But how much longer are we going to keep our strength up as these things become more likely and occur more often?

Can’t we just bite the bullet and stop warming the atmosphere?


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Boring Disasters

I am not, at present, bored, but if I were it would be understandable. I am sleepy (I got up too early this morning and have not been able to nap), I have a long and mostly uninspiring to-do list, and at present I have no human company to entertain me. Nothing much is going on today. Everything seems normal, albeit in a bland way.

And yet I’m sure I could find a dozen examples of climate disaster in the news, were I simply to use a search engine. Fires, floods, and famine, violence and disease, all of it. Species grind towards extinction. Things look dire–if one happens to look. Today, evidence of the spectacle all seems to lie elsewhere. Lucky me.

Some people may be under the mistaken impression that climate change is coming–or the even more mistaken impression that it isn’t. After all, the world does not yet look like a disaster movie, only parts of it do–and partial disasters have always occurred, that’s the inspiration for the movies.

But climate change is here, and this is what planet-wide disaster looks like. Floods, fires, famines, violence, disease, extinctions, AND ordinary afternoons where nothing much seems to be happening.

That’s worth remembering.


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The Cost of Fire

So, the national fire Preparedness Level (PL) has gone to 5.

PLs are a way of defining the current draw on wildfire fighting resources. The higher the number, the more resources have been committed and the less-prepared we are for additional fires without additional help. Each region has its own PL, and then the US as a whole has a PL. If the national PL is 1, that means that all fires can be handled locally, without outside assistance. As the PL rises, the response to fire is organized at larger and larger scales, until at PL 5, teams are being called in from all over the country, and sometimes even from other countries, because local and even regional resources have been overwhelmed.

My husband goes west to fight fires at PL 5. We are now on alert. All our plans, from family get-togethers to vet appointments, must now be organized around the possibility that he could get the call. When you watch news coverage of catastrophic fires, remember the news is personal for some people.

This year’s fires are scary. Three firefighter have already died, as have several civilians. July is the first month of California’s fiscal year, and the state has already spent a quarter of its fire budget–and the worst part of its fire season is still months away. Fire seasons are trending worse, now, for all sorts of reasons, climate change among them. Not only are fire seasons longer and more intense, largely because of changes in precipitation patterns, but hotter weather makes fires less predictable and renders firefighters much more vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I’ve described these mechanisms before. They remain important to know about and think about.

But I’m also thinking about politics.

This years’ fires have involved extensive property damage–“1000 homes and businesses,” according to one article, and though it’s hard to tell exactly what that means, clearly communities have been damaged. Recovery from such damage takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Who pays?

I’m having trouble finding descriptions of the long-term effects of community-scale loss to fire, but I have information that offers suggestions. I can look at other kinds of big disasters, such as major floods. I can look at recovery from isolated house fires. I can look at short-term recovery from community-scale fires. Clean-up and rebuilding seem to take two or three years, assuming the survivors can get money to rebuild, assuming that work is not delayed by labor shortages, price hikes, or fraud, and assuming that no new disaster occurs to set the process back. But those are some big assumptions. Some families might not be able to rebuild at all, and might well find themselves knocked down a socioeconomic rung or two permanently. Mental and physical health issues can persist. New construction might simply recreate the vulnerabilities that made the disaster so bad in the first place. The community will likely never recover completely.

So, that means reduced economic activity and increased demand for social services over time, costs that must be largely invisible when we look at the already-large price tags of these fires. Who pays for these costs? Somebody has to.

Firefighting itself is generally covered by the US Forest Service and the BLM, since most wildfires happen on their land. These agencies have an annual firefighting budget based on the average firefighting costs over the past ten years. When that budget is exhausted, as sometimes happens, the extra money is taken from other budgets, usually from money set aside for mitigating fire risk (thinning forests, for example, or doing proscribed burns), so bad fires beget more bad fires. Curiously, wildfires are not legally considered “natural disasters,” meaning FEMA is not involved. Individual survivors must depend on private insurance.

As fires and other disasters become more frequent with climate change, the United States may lose the ability to pay for so many large-scale, multi-year recoveries. That is a huge problem. But it’s not the only problem.

Between the costs survivors must bear directly, state and local taxpayer burdens, and Federal budget problems that result in more fires (with their hidden, long-term costs), the bill for wildfires lands mostly on the people who live in or near the places that burn. We’re talking about public health, economic issues, damaged lives. And a share of that bill can be placed at the feet of climate change–which the Federal government is doing fundamentally nothing about.

What I want to know is why fire-prone states aren’t all electing climate hawks to Congress? Why didn’t all these states go Democrat in the last presidential election? Why isn’t this part of the story part of the public conversation on climate change?