The Climate in Emergency

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


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What Walls Between Us

So, about this wall.

In case you don’t know (I do have overseas readers, and I assume American politics are not front and center of your daily lives), the United States currently lacks a functional Federal government. For reasons beyond me, if one Federal budget expires before the next one is approved, the US government suddenly becomes unable to spend any money. Most of its functions shut down, those few workers considered absolutely necessary work without pay, and chaos gradually descends on the country until Congress and the President quit playing chicken and pass a new budget.

Seriously, I don’t understand–why doesn’t Congress pass a new law saying that if the new budget is not approved on time, the old one stays in force until replaced? It’s not like government shut-downs save anybody any money. Nobody really wins, except (maybe) at chicken.

Anyway.

The issue this time is the wall that Mr. Trump promised his followers and now can’t admit was only a rhetorical device. Democrats–and some Republicans–do not want to approve money for the wall, arguing that it will do nothing to stop illegal immigration (most of what Mr. Trump says about border security is factually incorrect) and that the money is better spent on other issues.

While I’m personally concerned about many aspects of the situation, the one I’m most qualified to talk about is the one I see getting little attention in the news.

Basically, voices are being raised to the effect that Democrats ought to compromise and fund the wall in order to get the government back on–the assumption being that while there is strong evidence that the wall would be a pointless waste of money, the wall itself would only be useless. And that’s not true.

Long border walls are environmental disasters.

What’s Wrong with a Wall?

A continuous wall along the US/Mexico border would cause a whole series of environmental problems. Here is a brief review of a few of them.

Construction

Building a long wall would be an enormous construction project, especially in remote areas that lack roads, storage facilities, and other necessary infrastructure, all of which will have to be built. That’s a lot of disruption in the wilderness–cutting of plants, compaction of soils, increased erosion, dead wildlife–which will be all the worse because the Department of Homeland Security is exempt from environmental laws. That means if the wall is routed through the last breeding ground of some endangered species, so what.

Carbon

Exactly what the carbon footprint of Trump’s wall might be depends on the final design and it’s actual length (there is a lot of wall on the border already), but it’s sure to be huge. That’s because the wall would likely be made out of either concrete and steel or steel alone, and both are very carbon-intensive materials. I’ve seen estimates as high as 7.6 million metric tons of CO2.

And that’s not counting the carbon cost of construction, or of changes in infrastructure necessitated by the presence of the wall, like re-routing traffic.

That’s a big climate impact, for a wall that won’t even accomplish its intended purpose.

Location

The wall is scheduled to go through multiple wildlife sanctuaries, environmentally sensitive areas, a famous butterfly sanctuary, and other places that shouldn’t be destroyed. And destroyed they would be–remember, we’re not just talking about the wall itself, but also the construction zone around it, a literal swath of death.

While construction zones do generally re-wild afterwards, there are places that are unusually sensitive or unusually important that either require special damage mitigation or shouldn’t be constructed in at all. The wall will not respect such places. It will simply follow the border.

Flooding

Border walls, and even fences, cause flooding. We know that because there is a lot of border wall up already, and it has caused floods. Even if the wall has an open design that allows water to pass, floating debris will soon clog up the openings and block water.

Divisions

Walls are very bad for wildlife. Not only do walls cause problems for individual animals, who may have food on one side of the wall and water on the other, for example, but walls divide breeding populations. Not only might a small population go extinct because of inbreeding, but if it does, the area can’t be re-colonized if the remaining populations are on the other side of the wall.

There is a whole area of ecology concerned with the size, shape, and location of animal habitat, and the message is clear; two small places (with a wall between) simply aren’t as good as the one big place was before the division happens. When boundaries go up, the number of species goes down.

There are 93 endangered species threatened by the planned border wall. There may be others that are doing fine now, but will be endangered by the wall.

Extinction can take a long time, sometimes decades. While some might hope Trump’s wall will be taken down again fairly soon, before it can do much damage, walls can divide wildlife even after they no longer exist.

During the Cold War, the border between East Germany and West Germany was heavily fortified, and animals avoided the border–not only could they not cross it, but the border must have been very noisy and frightening. That wall doesn’t exist anymore. The border doesn’t exist anymore, hasn’t for thirty years.

But at least one species of deer still acts as though it’s there.

Roe deer learn ranging patterns from their mothers and only rarely depart from traditional patterns as adults. They evidently don’t question why the traditions are what they are, they just do as they’ve been taught, and they teach their young to do the same. So even though no roe deer is left alive who actually saw or heard the fortification, the deer keep acting as though the boundary is still real. If that division damaged the deer in any way, the damage is still being done.

Sometimes when you cut something, you can’t put it back together.

The Wall and the Climate

It’s also worth noting that while the wall itself would cause environmental disaster, it is also ostensibly intended to solve a problem caused by environmental disaster.

Today’s immigrant crisis is new, not because more people are coming north (actually, fewer people are), but because these aren’t young men seeking better-paying jobs. These are families with children trying to stay alive. Many of them are not even illegal immigrants–they’re asylum seekers. They’re running from various forms of crisis, from the personal (domestic abuse) to the societal (gang violence), but a major part of the problem is agricultural and economic collapse caused by drought and other extreme weather in Honduras and its neighbors.

What’s causing the bad weather? Climate change, of course.

No one willing to take their children  from Honduras to the United States on foot is going to be stopped by a wall. The level of desperation implied by such an act cannot be underestimated. Probably, nothing can stop them, not unless the United States becomes not worth living in, either. Until and unless that happens, there will be more of them. And more. If we were in their shoes, we’d do anything to survive, too.

If this country is serious about not being over-run by climate migrants, we have only three options:

  1. Prepare ourselves to accept large numbers of migrants without disruption
  2. Help Honduras (and any other country in trouble) so that it can keep its own people healthy and safe
  3. Stop anthropogenic climate change.

President Trump  wants $5 billion for the wall. How far would that money go towards programs to shift our country off of fossil fuel?

Call your Congresspeople.

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New Year’s New Round-Up

A new year begins and, as become semi-traditional for me, I want to do a re-cap of climate-related stories from over the past twelve months. I’m making no attempt at a complete, exhaustive summary, just a fairly casual look back at the-year-that-was.

January

January 2018 offers an interesting example of the importance of framing. One way to tell the story is that global temperature fell slightly due to a La Niña event; the month was cooler than the previous three Januaries, and also cooler than January of 2007. The other way to tell the tale is that four of the five warmest Januaries in 138 years of record-keeping all occurred in a row–and the fifth was only 11 years ago.

Both statements are true, but which sounds more ominous? Actually, the fact that a La Niña year could still crack the top five is pretty ominous, too.

The month also featured various instances of political climate denial (including the State of the Union speech, which I refused to watch and only read about later) and various instances of extreme weather, notably in New Zealand, which had several severe storms and heat waves.

February

February was again warmer than most Februaries in recorded history, but cooler than several recent Februaries. “Unprecedented” heat waves in the Arctic caused blizzards in Europe while parts of the American East Coast cracked 76° F. (due to atmospheric instability caused by climate change, as we’ve covered here before).

March

Did you know it’s impossible do find news about climate from the month between February and April? “Climate March” means something else to the algorithm….

March was the month my area got hit with four nor’easters in a row, though–and there was almost a fifth. That was pretty weird.

April and May

April was again either notably warm or notably cold, depending on framing. At the end of the month, and continuing into May, was the Bonn Climate Conference for discussing details of how the Paris Climate Agreement will work, as well as an informal discussion of each party’s progress. This meeting is one of two annual international climate conferences. One is for setting overall policy, while this one is for discussing issues and questions that such policy decisions bring up.

I remember being surprised to hear about this conference, as I’d seen no coverage of it until it was actually in progress.

May was also notable for lots of extreme weather events all over the planet, much of it involving flooding. The Ellicott City floods were my local example here–those rains were just the beginning of the worst year for farming for parts of Maryland in living memory.

June

June 2018 tied with 1998 for third-warmest on record–but 1998 was an El Niño year. They’re supposed to be warm, and that year set new records for warmth, including a record for warmest June that was only broken by 2015 and 2016. 2018 was a La Nina year and supposedly cool. Something is wrong when your cool year is as warm as the year that set the record for heat 20 years earlier!

July

Heat waves, floods, and fires (remember the fires?) swept across large portions of the planet this month and no less a source than USA TODAY (hardly considered a radical paper) reported that climate change definitely had a role in the devastation. The story interviewed scientists from Stanford and UCLA. It’s getting real….

August

August saw a flurry of articles, including in the mainstream press, about people everywhere starting to take climate change seriously. The month also saw the publication of a government report about how bad our situation really is, and the zeitgeist appeared to notice the report and, collectively, gasp. Better late than never, perhaps.

September

September, according to a quick internet search, was the month of lots of nation-wide, coordinated demonstrations and actions for our climate! Unfortunately, no one seemed to notice at the time. The events weren’t publicized in any way that got on my radar, which I found disturbing and bizarre. I wrote about the weird silence early in the month, but appear not to have known about events later in the month at all. I did not attend any, nor did I react to them in print.

October

In early October, the IPCC released a report warning that we have only 12 years to avert climate catastrophe, much less than everybody had thought, and again the world went Gasp! I’m surprised to hear we have that long, but I’m pleased to see more people noticing and talking about the problem seriously.

November

This month saw another flurry of articles in mainstream news media about the real and present danger of climate change–a big contrast with earlier in the year, when the name of the month, plus “climate change” yields only reports on temperature records and articles from a few environmentalist blogs. The release of another dire government report, this one on the economic and social impacts of climate change, is no doubt related to the surge in interest.

December

The last month of the year brought another international climate conference and another flurry of climate concern in the mainstream media. I don’t mean to sound trite–the fact that the media seem to have woken up is excellent news, even as other news coming out of these conferences and reports is worse and worse.

I have spent most of this past year in an ongoing slump for various reasons, personal and otherwise, and there hasn’t been much in the way of reason for hope, in my view, in any of these twelve months. But the fact that the story of the year can be told as a tale of dramatically increasing interest in climate change by the news media–a trend I’d thought I’d noticed and I’m glad to see it confirmed–might be the best news of the year.

 


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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?