The Climate in Emergency

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


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Spring Weather

Today I’ve been attending to family matters, working for money, and driving from Point A to Point B (and getting lost en route; I am not the world’s best navigator).  So I don’t have time for a big, long, involved post. Fortunately, all I really need to say today fits in one sentence:

Today I was in short-sleeves in February, again.

This February has been ridiculously hot in the Eastern United States, breaking numerous records from Ohio to South Carolina to Vermont. One of the most striking details is that Burlington, Vermont set a record for warmest February day ever on the 25th at 71 degrees, Fahrenheit–breaking the previous record that had been set two days earlier.

Spring is about 20 days early this year, in this region.

A warm period, all by itself, does not confirm global warming any more than a cold period, of course. All this has to be seen in context, and we already know what the context is–the Earth is getting warmer, and the most powerful nation in the world is led by a man bent on doing nothing about it.

But the weather is a reminder.

 


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Dam Problems

So, California is at serious risk of flooding.

As readers may be aware, the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway came very near to failing a few days ago, triggering massive evacuations for people who live downstream. The situation has been stabilized, and people may now return home, but more storms are due in tomorrow, and so everything is very precarious.

Before I get to my point (climate change), I offer a brief synopsis of the situation and of the dam.

The Dam Situation

The Oroville Dam* blocks the Feather River, a tributary of the Sacramento River, and thus creates Oroville Lake, near Oroville, California. The dam was first proposed in 1951 and was finally completed in 1968 (and dedicated by then-governor, Ronald Reagan).  It is the tallest dam in the United States. Its primary purpose purpose is flood control, though it also collects water for both municipal use and for irrigating the San Joaquin Valley, and generates hydroelectric power.

Under normal circumstances, water released by the dam flows out through pipes at its base, to rejoin the Feather River. During floods, a spillway off to the right of the dam (that is the dam’s right, river-right) can be opened. Since the spillway gate is high up, close to the level of the top of the dam, water must flow from the gate down a long, concrete-lined path, to get back to the Feather River. So far so good. But on February 7th, a week ago today, the rushing water eroded a hole in the floor of the spillway. The concern was that if the hole grew large enough, it could undermine the spillway gate and cause it to fail–so the gate was partially closed. And the water started to rise.

Fortunately, there was a plan B in place. The earthen embankment to the right of the spillway is topped by a secondary dam that is lower than the primary dam. If the spillway system fails, water will spill over this secondary dam–called the emergency spillway–instead of over-topping the main dam (and possibly damaging it). On February 11th, for the first time in the facility’s history, water did flow over the emergency spillway–and began eroding the embankment.

Had the erosion gone on long enough, it would have undercut the secondary dam, washing it away, and sending a giant wall of water down over the homes of almost 190,000 people. Hence the evacuations.

Officials were able to drop the lake level enough to stop the flow over the emergency spillway and to make emergency repairs, but California’s rainy season still has at least two more months to run. A catastrophic failure at Oroville is still not out of the question.

Dam Climate Change

The Oroville Dam, like much of the rest of California’s water infrastructure, suffers from several problems.

American infrastructure generally is in poor shape, largely because it is politically much easier to fund new construction than to fund repair (I wonder, too, whether changes in the tax structure have starved public works–much of our infrastructure dates back to a time when America was much more civics-minded than it is today). So many dams are past due for maintenance. Oroville specifically might have gotten a concrete lining for its emergency spillway–as was suggested and rejected in 2005–had more funding been available. In that case, erosion would not have been a threat.

But Oroville was also designed for much smaller flood volumes than are now considered likely. Part of that is simply that the modeling is more accurate now, but part of it is that floods are bigger. There is more impermeable surface, preventing water from seeping into the ground before it reaches a river, and there are more extreme weather events, thanks to climate change. Droughts, like the one California just came out of, are deeper and longer, while rainy periods are wetter than ever before, too. The state is currently having its wettest year on record–2017 has topped the region’s typical annual rainfall already. The system just wasn’t designed for this.

Scientific American (as seems to be its usual) cautions that it’s too soon to tell whether there’s any link between Oroville’s dam problem and climate change, but acknowledges that problems like this will occur more frequently because of climate change. However, a study published six years ago explains that storms associated with “atmospheric rivers” do hit California more intensely in certain climate change scenarios–specifically, while average atmospheric river (AR) activity stays the same, the extremes become more so, with more storms, more intense storms, and warmer storms in some years. The recent storms have been AR storms, and at least some have been notably warm. That seems like a pretty clear link to me.

Variation in precipitation is not the only factor, either.

Snowmelt in California’s mountains has been getting earlier and earlier since the 1940’s. Regional, and possibly natural patterns are involved, and back in 1994, when this paper was published, researchers weren’t sure anthropogenic climate change was a factor. But that was 23 years ago. I bet they’re sure, now, I just haven’t tracked down a more recent paper on the subject, yet. Earlier snowmelt and warmer winters (in which more moisture falls as rain rather than snow) together mean that more water runs off the land without having time to soak into the ground–or be used by agriculture. That means both more trouble with flooding and with California’s aging dams and more serious droughts, potentially in the same year.

In fact, parts of California (though not Oroville or, as far as I can tell, the watershed that feeds Oroville Lake) are still in a drought, according to the US Drought Monitor (unfortunately, you won’t be able to find this week’s report is you visit the monitor after it next updates).

What does all of this mean for Californians? It means they need us to stop causing climate change, obviously. But the state will also need to make decisions about its infrastructure, its water-use plans, and its development patterns that are more in keeping with the climate change we’ve already locked in–and those decisions depend on accurate and up-to-date data and analysis.

Next time anyone asks you if it’s really important for state and Federal governments to have access to accurate climate science, you can talk about the thousands of people who might drown this winter if the Oroville dam fails after all.

We already know that the evacuation clogged the highways. Had the spillway failed, some people could have been overtaken by water in their cars.

*Yes, I linked to Wikipedia, even though I generally consider it an unreliable source. In this case, the details of the Wikipedia article are consistent with, and largely seconded by, what I’ve read elsewhere, but I’d have to cite a half-dozen other articles at once if I wanted to avoid Wikipedia in this case.-C.


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For a Little Boy

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, and rewritten it at least once under a new title. I’m re-posting again now for reasons that should be obvious to friends and family–and I figure now is also a good time to remind people that what we’re doing really matters.  Although this story is a fantasy, it is based on the published results of climate models. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth birthday, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

More years pass, and my nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He has friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year, he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. The American white birches are all dead, killed by a changing climate. It’s sad.

Eventually, my nephew becomes a very old man, a spry but somewhat stooped 89-year-old, mostly bald, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out of his ears, his breathing deep and slow and marred by occasional coughs and rumbles. He has lived long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts have reworked the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity has pulled away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters have befallen him–the worst-case scenarios have not played out, but mostly he’s just been lucky. Plenty of disasters have happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can. But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

——————–

I wrote the above fantasy several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and has carried treats to the chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think my nephew knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.


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Retrospective

Hello. Sorry this post is a few days late.

I set out to write a retrospective of the year, as I have for at least some of the other years of this blog. But I noticed something funny, when I looked over my writings of 2016. In brief, there wasn’t a whole lot to retrospect.

Most of my posts this past year were opinion pieces, science explainers, or climate fiction–or politics. There was a lot of politics. I covered very few actual events.

Of course, there was weather. Remember that hurricane in January? The cyclone that literally blew around in the Pacific (as in its track made a circle)? The terrible flooding in Britain and then the rest of Europe? The fires? No, I did actually write about fire last year, but I remember the fires in the Smokies, anyway. Yes, fire counts as weather in the same way that flooding does, for one is a symptom of too much rain and the other a symptom of too little. But increasingly, I’m getting reluctant to write about weather here, because it’s always the same story. Climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather, here is extreme weather happening, please stop causing climate change. Over and over again. And again.

There was the California methane leak, which I wrote about in January. It was finally sealed towards the end of February, a little earlier than some experts had feared. Two months later, some area residents still had not returned, worrying about lingering contamination. Some still had health problems, probably caused by poisoning from some combination of mercaptan, heavy metals, and benzene, all of which were present in the gas plume from the leak (methane itself is not toxic, but it is a dangerously powerful greenhouse gas). I don’t know what has happened since, how the lawsuits have turned out or if there have been any policy changes involving methane storage, because the newsmedia seem to have totally lost interest.

There was the oil and gas exploration policy process, which we more or less won. Not only was the Atlantic excluded from oil and gas exploration, so was the Arctic. How long any of that will last in the new political climate seems unclear, though.

There was the Dakota Access Pipe Line, which I’ve mostly avoided writing about because it’s not my story to tell, but it is an important and ongoing issue.

And there was the disaster that is Donald Trump and the new Republican Congress.

Look, people, we’re going the wrong way. We need a climate-sane government and we don’t have one yet. We don’t even have much of a popular movement in that direction. The pushback against Mr. Trump seems largely organized around women’s rights, LGBT rights, the civil rights of racial and cultural minorities, especially immigrants…but what no one is saying that if Mr. Trump disassembles President Obama’s climate legacy, members of all those groups will be directly and terribly affected. Climate change is a women’s rights issue. It’s a civil rights issue. It is an economic issue. There is no way to win on any of those other fronts if we lose on climate change.

And yet 2015 gave us a series of climate marches last year to which virtually nobody showed up. Not surprisingly, 2016 gave us an election cycle in which the issue was hardly  raised. We now have a Congress who has no particular reason to believe there is any political will to support climate action.

I am more than ready for 2017 to pleasantly surprise me.


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Closer to Home

This week, the photos of drowned cars and pondlike streets have depicted places just up the road from me–a couple of days of hard rain sent the Pokemoke River rising out of its banks and washing out roads. As far as I have been able to gather, this isn’t really a disaster, more of a dramatic and expensive inconvenience, but still. I’m used to this sort of thing happening to other people, not to my neighbors.

Next week, we may be hit by a hurricane.

I’m not going to link to a source, here, because the various weather websites are constantly being updated and you wouldn’t be able to see the same thing I read. What I’m seeing is that the storm is going to roughly parallel the East Coast of the United States at least at far as the Carolinas, before veering somewhat more offshore. They still aren’t sure exactly what track the hurricane will take, and slight variations matter. A couple of miles to the East or West could be the difference between real disaster and a sort of inclement day or two. We’ve had hurricanes here before, but we’re unusually vulnerable right now because our soils are still completely saturated. It won’t take much rain for us to flood all over again.

This kind of weather always makes people more aware of climate change. It’s enough to make a doubter wake up to the severity of the situation. Cooler heads may point out that weather and climate are different, that it is difficult or impossible to tie any particular weather event to climate change. And all that is true.

But the flip-side of that truth is that even when your particular area is having a calm, clear, wonderful day, climate change is still happening.


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How Normal Is this Abnormality?

Ok, I was going to write about politics or something this week, because we all know climate change causes extreme weather already so why should I have to write the same post about floods and droughts over and over and over and over again, but really? Baton Rouge? There’s a time and a place for just acknowledging what’s going on because people are dying down there. One area resident, who also happens to be the Louisiana state climatologist, told Scientific American (see previous link) the scale of devastation was like that of Hurricane Katrina and that “This is a pretty big deal, many, many, many homes flooded; it is hard to capture that in any one scope of a camera. It’s worse than it appears on television.”

So, however bad it looks to us from the outside? It’s worse than that. We’re going to be coping with the effects of this storm, as a nation, for years.

Again, according to Scientific American (same link!), this specific event can’t be linked to climate change, but extreme weather in general, including flooding, is a sign of climate change. That’s the standard story, and I’ve told it before. But I don’t actually think it’s true anymore. Not in this case, anyway.

The thing is, the reason this storm has been so achingly, awfully bad is that a high pressure zone sat itself down on the East Coast and refused to move, so, therefore, this storm full of Gulf Coast moisture had nowhere to go and just dumped all of its water right there on Louisiana (same link again!). And the thing is, I’ve heard that before.

It seems like every severe weather story I hear lately is the direct result of a blocking high.

So, I went looking around on the internet for a while, trying this search term and that, and finally found an article explaining that yes, stationary high pressure zones, caused by an erratic jet stream ARE the major proximate cause of many different types of extreme weather and, yes, these highs ARE getting more frequent. Because of climate change. Granted, the author was talking about winter extremes, but I see to reason to suppose the same mechanism might not work in the summer, too. The exact mechanism for the more erratic jet stream is still being debated, but seems to have something to do with the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than the lower latitudes are.

So, why did it take me twenty minutes online to find information Scientific American said didn’t exist? I don’t suggest a conspiracy–we’re probably looking at the result of a legitimate editorial decision about how much detail to get into for a popular market article. Also, what, exactly, it means to say a weather event was or was not caused by climate is a bit philosophically murky, anyway.

In the meantime, there are also various droughts (if you click on that link more than a week after I post this you won’t see the information I used, but rather the new, updated drought map. I wish I knew a way around that, but I have bigger fish to fry at the moment).  Some of these droughts are garden-variety, others are severe and unprecedented. California continues to just plain dry up. It’s horrible. Part of Massachusetts are in an Extreme Drought for the first time since the category came into existence (in 1999, but still!). There are other examples. But I’m unable to find out if any of this, except California, are really unusual. Is the US having bizarre weather at the moment?

It’s an important question. Somewhere the weather is always extreme. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but it must be nearly so. It’s a big planet, and a couple of extremes somewhere at any given time is about what you’d expect. Put another way, a certain amount of abnormality is normal. So, if we’re going to talk about evidence of climate change seriously, it’s not enough to just see what extreme weather is making the news lately–we have to know if the extremes we’re seeing are themselves unusual in some way.

It’s like temperature.  It’s easy to notice that it’s hot today, but to know what that heat means, you’ve got to look at it in context–is today’s high above or below the average for your area at this time of the year? 80° F. is just not that impressive in Delaware in August, for example, even if you, personally, are over-heated. Human perceptions of “normal” are easy to fool. So, are we looking at a normal level of abnormality this week or not?

I haven’t been able to find out. Really, what I’m looking for is an extreme weather index, a site that keeps track of, perhaps, the number of weather records broken this week or the number of events labeled “extreme,” and color-codes each part of the country according to whether that number is typical or not. And there is something like that–the Climate Extremes Index, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Except it hasn’t been updated since July of 2015.

This is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration we’re talking about. You’d think they’d be on this sort of thing.

Maybe the up-to-date website I want is out there somewhere and I just don’t have the right search term yet or something. I’m not saying the information doesn’t exist, only that it’s disappointingly hard to find. It’s not on the tip of my search engine. That tells me most people aren’t asking the question.

And that is scary.


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Single Issue Voter

As the Republican National Convention proceeds, I’m not hearing anyone talk about climate change. Meanwhile, this summer the nation has already coped with violent storms (including tornadoes in Maine yesterday), multi-day killer heat waves  giving us yet another record-breaking June, droughts, and frightening floods. All part of the new and progressively destabilizing normal.

This blog is neutral on all issues other than climate change, but I do personally care about other issues. I am aware than my readers also care about other issues, some of which are life-and-death matters in various ways. But climate change is different. On every other topic, mistakes now mostly hurt the people of now. Correct the problem, and the damage will ease and then heal. Climate change, in contrast, will cast a shadow lasting for many generations. Some of the damage will simply not be reversible.

I suspect most regular readers of this blog are politically liberal, but I hope I have some conservative followers as well. To you I say please notice what the Republicans are ignoring. Vote Democrat or vote third-party this time—push your political leaders into taking climate seriously or else. National security, public health, the economy, all those other issues ultimately depend on our successful handling of this one.

We (meaning climate-sane people) must take both the White House and the Capitol Building this cycle. If we don’t, climate-denier leaders will undo whatever good we have managed to win so far. We’ll have to start over in four years or eight years. We’re running out of time.

Conservation used to be a Republican value. It could be again. Why allow all climate-sane solutions to be Democrat ideas?

Come on. We need you.