The Climate in Emergency

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


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Your Tuesday Update on Wednesday: 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, but he’s getting old enough now that I figured the piece was due for  a major re-write. So, here it is, edited for length and clarity, and with a new ending. 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 Peidmont 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. Or, he might prefer the shifting flights of birds, since many migrants head south based on conditions in Canada, and Canada will warm faster yet. Should be interesting.

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, 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.

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’s got 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. It’s sad.

My nephew lives 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 rework the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity pulls 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 befall him, the worst-case scenarios do not play out, but plenty of disasters do happen 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 does indeed share his farm with 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 he 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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Your Tuesday Update: Windy Fudge

NRP just ran a story on why Hurricane Patricia can’t be blamed on climate changebecause it is just one event and single events can’t be definitively pinned on a trend.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that before. And it’s entirely correct. Yes, this record-breaking storm is clearly related to a powerful El Niño, and no, we don’t know what the relationship between El Niño and climate change is. I’ve addressed all of that before, and probably so has every other climate change writer on the planet.

But that isn’t what people mean when they ask if this is climate change.

They’re not asking for a lecture about the difference between climate and weather or the definition of “trend” or any of that, they’re asking is climate change real? and is this the sort of thing we can expect more of? And the answer to both of those questions is unequivocally YES.

No, we don’t know if there has been a statistically significant change in hurricane behavior yet because we have no good baseline data to compare against. So while we can say Patricia was startling, we can’t really get a handle on how unusual the storm was. It had the highest winds of any storm measured, but we haven’t been measuring storms very well for very long. Yes, El Niño is a complicating factor. It’s important for anyone interested in seriously discussing climate change to understand these details so that we won’t be caught hanging when some climate denier twists them up for use as semi-true window-dressing for propaganda.

But all of that is a footnote to the story. The story is that unusually warm water produces unusually powerful hurricanes. Global warming includes the waters of the globe. This is what climate change looks like, among other things–monster hurricanes.

No single events will ever be pinnable to any trend because trends are only visible in multiple events. That isn’t going to change. It isn’t news. So, to NPR and every other journalist working on the topic, please stop misframing public questions in a way that allows you to answer “no” when the true answer to the real question is “yes.”


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Cyclone Pam

Last week was a strange week for weather in the South Pacific. Not only were four tropical cyclones active all at the same, but one of those four was Cyclone Pam, a monster storm equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane that more or less flattened the island nation of Vanuatu. Of course, climate change is involved.

To be clear, Pam was the same kind of storm that is called a hurricane or a typhoon in other parts of the world. By a rather confusing accepted convention, the words for these storms vary depending on both how strong they are and where they are on the planet. “Tropical cyclone” is the collective term.

Vanuatu is among those several archipelagos that curve around Australia between Southeast Asia and New Zealand. In material terms it is very poor, and its average life expectancy, adult literacy rate, and availability of doctors are all lower than what people in the “developed” world are used to. That being said, it is a democracy, its life expectancy is quite good compared to economically similar nations, and the people did extremely well in terms of both environmental sustainability and quality of life–at least until last Saturday.

Only 20 people are confirmed dead so far, but some of the more remote islands have not been contacted yet. The nation had good disaster planning and successfully evacuated a lot of people. More dramatically, tens of thousands of people are homeless, their crops completely destroyed. Those people will be dependent on food aid for months. Many currently have no access to fresh water and some people are drinking salt water instead–a practice that will kill them if fresh water supplies don’t arrive soon. The aftermath of the storm could kill more people than the storm did, and the disaster could change the political and economic outlook of the country for a long time, depending on how the reconstruction process goes.

Vanuatu also threatened New Zealand (remember, in the Southern Hemisphere tropical cyclones track south), triggering storm warnings and possible evacuations, but the storm seems to have been a complete non-issue in New Zealand. There’s little to no information available online and my Kiwi friend is happily posting pictures of her dogs on Facebook, just like normal.

The other three storms in the same basin are, individually, unremarkable–the only thing is there are so many of them.

How Unusual Is This?

Most of my readers are American, and we do not get news about the South Pacific very often. Most of us probably didn’t know Vanuatu existed until this week. So, to put this newsworthy weather in context:

Cyclone Pam was probably not a record-breaking storm, but it was among the most powerful known to history, with estimated top sustained winds of 165 mph and gusts up to 200 mph. Its central pressure could have been as low as 879 millibars, which would put it behind just two Atlantic hurricanes. Unfortunately, no one flies aerial reconnaissance into Pacific storms, so there is no way to know for sure exactly what Pam’s numbers were.  Vanuatu itself rarely gets hit by cyclones because it is a very small place (total land area is just larger than the state of Connecticut, divided among many islands) in a very large ocean.

But we also don’t have very good historical records for the area’s weather. In fact, there’s really only about thirty years of tropical cyclone data for Vanuatu–how Pam relates to historical trends is therefore very hard to say.

Four active storms in the same basin is unusual, though hardly unprecedented. It has happened at least twice before in the Atlantic, and is probably more common than our records suggest because storms that never made landfall were easy to miss until modern times. Two storms at once in the same basin is actually quite common. Essentially, how “friendly” a given ocean basin is to tropical cyclone formation varies and a very storm-friendly ocean forms a lot of storms. Interestingly, the same large atmospheric pattern that caused the four storms last week is also causing cooler temperatures in the United States this week. Whether this particular pattern is anything other than chance seems unclear.

What Does Cyclone Pam Have to Do with Climate Change?

In general, climate change is a trend and part of that trend is probably more powerful tropical cyclones. Whether storm behavior is actually changing is hard to say, because we have too little historical information. At least some studies have shown definite increases. We do know that storm surges are getting worse because of rising sea level, and that storm surges are usually the deadliest part of the storm.

Specifically, the ocean surface around Vanuatu was a few degrees warmer than normal at the time Pam moved through it, thus feeding more energy and moisture into the storm. That warmth was partially due to global warming and partially due to a weak El Niño–and nobody knows what the relationship between global warming and El Niño is. It is possible they interact. Very large storms often have sea surface temperature anomalies underneath them, which is ominous in a world of rising temperatures.

But sea surface temperature alone does not dictate the power of a tropical cyclone. Instead, the upper limit of potential storm power in any one place and time is based on the difference between sea surface temperature and the troposphere as a whole. The troposphere is the part of the atmosphere where weather happens. Above it is the stratosphere an there is a distinct boundary, called the tropopause, between the two. The thing is that while the sea is definitely warming, the troposphere is warming, too. If both warm at the same rate, the upward boundary on storm power will not change (although other aspects of storm behavior could).

As it happens, the difference between sea and sky is increasing in the South Pacific, enough to have raised the potential storm intensity for that region by about 5 mph per decade. That is a lot–it adds up to an increase of almost 20 mph since I was born. Presumably, not all storms reach their potential, but increasing potential suggests increased storm intensity over time. Climate models so far predict only a much smaller rise in storm severity potential for the future, which could mean that something other than the greenhouse effect is causing much of the shift–or it could mean the models are overly optimistic.

Basically, what we’re looking at is a real possibility that tropical cyclones in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean have gotten more severe in recent decades, though it’s hard to say how much more severe because we don’t have enough data–and the probability that such storms are going to get more severe going forward. The only real question is how much worse are they going to get?

The Take-away

I have written before about tropical cyclones as a human rights issue, since the poor and otherwise disenfranchised bear a disproportionate burden from disaster. I have also written before about how wind speed per se is not a good indicator of what climate change is doing to these storms, since global warming is unquestionably increasing storm-related flooding whether wind speed changes or not–and flooding causes much more death and damage than wind.

But there is another point I had not encountered until recently, and it is a very good point.

Tropical cyclones are rare. While a few dozen might form in any given storm basin per year, the oceans are big places. It’s rare for a big storm to make a direct strike on the same place twice in a generation–Vanuatu, for example, has not been hit this bad before. That means that development patterns, building codes, public willingness to take evacuation orders seriously–cultural storm preparedness generally–is based largely on legend and rumor.

My area illustrates the point nicely; I live on the Atlantic side of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We were hit by both Irene and Sandy, but neither did significant damage here. We’ve also weathered some severe nor’easters, but those are not hurricanes–the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 was hurricane-like in its destructiveness, but even that was 53 years ago. A lot of people (me included) have been born since then. I just asked my husband when the last disastrous hurricane hit us and he wasn’t sure. He guessed the 1950’s or 60’s. If a monster storm hits here next year, a lot of people could well ignore evacuation orders (because we survived Irene and Sandy, after all) and a lot of new waterfront housing will wash away–as will a lot of older buildings and farmlands made newly vulnerable by sea level rise and by the loss of coastal wetlands to development. Disasters are things that happen to other people, we will think, not to us.

And what cultural memory we do have of hurricanes is almost sixty years out of date.

Storm rarity means that society takes a long time to adapt to the new normal, needing perhaps two or three big storms to really get the message–and that could take 75 years. By that time, of course, there will be a new new normal, unless we as a society stop warping the atmosphere. That’s really what we’re looking at. If we do not stop pumping greenhouse gasses into the sky, climate will change faster than we can adapt to it and it will keep changing faster than we can adapt until anthropogenic climate change stops–or until we stop.

 


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Snowtastrophe

So, in case anybody didn’t know, Boston is sitting under about six feet of snow right now. Six feet.

Just to put that in perspective, if you had a ground-level door in Boston, with no porch or overhang above it,  and you opened that door, you wouldn’t see the outside. Mostly, you would see a wall of snow. Unless your indoor lights were on, most of the wall would appear black, because even a few inches of snow completely block light. The very top of the cliff would look blue or white, and you’d be able to see the sky through a six-inch gap between the snow and the top of the door. And all of it has fallen in the past thirty days.

More heavy snow is on the way this weekend.

Predictably, certain people are yammering that so much snow disproves global warming, while others point out, correctly, that climate change actually causes more snow. I agree that global warming = more snow does sound counter-intuitive, but we all know that climate change is complex, bringing floods to some places and droughts to others, etc. Perhaps snowy Boston is similar? But no. Actually, the thing with snow is not complex at all.

Here’s the deal; when the air is below freezing, precipitation falls as snow. That means that until a given area warms so much that it no longer freezes in winter, it will continue to get snow. If a big, wet, storm moves in during freezing weather, it will get a lot of snow. A giant blizzard (or several of them in a row) is what a flood looks like in New England in February.

And indeed, while the Boston area has been colder than average for February this year, it hasn’t been that much colder. It hasn’t dropped to zero (Fahrenheit) this month yet, although one below-zero night is average for February in Boston. The record lows for each day in the first twelve days of February are all below zero–and no cold weather record has been broken in early February in Boston for eighty-one years (in contrast, of the heat records for the first twelve days of this month, six were set over the last twenty-five years).

So, we’re not looking at especially cold weather right now. What we’re looking at is a flood that happens to be frozen.

And for New England, climate change generally takes the form of floods, some of them catastrophic. Temperatures have risen dramatically as well, but most of the change has involved nighttime lows, when most people are asleep. It is the flooding most people notice. The event that we’re seeing now is comparable in scope to Tropical Storm Irene, Superstorm Sandy, and all the other major floods, named and unnamed, that have wet New England in recent years. At least fifteen people have already died (and that figure is six days old), counting those who succumbed to the same storms in other areas. Snow storms typically kill through traffic accidents and heart failure triggered by the effort of shoveling. Very heavy snowfalls, like these, can collapse roofs from the weight. I have not heard of anyone being under a roof when it collapsed, but it must happen. Boston alone has or will spend over twenty million dollars on snow removal and other blizzard-related costs from just the storms of the past month. The snow season still has another month to go.

Where I live, in Maryland, we’ve hardly had any snow all year–just a light dusting a few times and a couple of flurries. We see the New England storms on the news, but the TV coverage usually makes it look like a giant pain in the neck and not much more. And my friends in New England all seem to be fine, if a little tired of the snow, so a mere inconvenience is all it is for many. But, it’s important to realize that it’s more than that for some people, and the regional infrastructure–which was not designed to deal with this much snow–is being severely strained. This is an extreme weather event and it is dangerous.

How does it relate to climate change?

Generally speaking, a warmer atmosphere carries more water and so delivers more floods. When it rains, it pours is the weather-mantra of the new age. But specifically, this series of storms is linked, not so much to warm air, but to warm water.

My friend, the science educator/weather geek explained to me that:

The snowiness is being caused by an upper level and persistent trough of low pressure. There is a strong High pressure ridge over the Western US that is bringing warm weather to the great plains and wet/cold weather to the eastern third of the US. Not sure when it will move away, probably not for another couple weeks.

The reason why this ridge of high pressure causes different kinds of weather in different places is that air rotates around it clockwise. So that rotation is pulling warm air up from Mexico into the Great Plains (and ruining Garrison Keilor’s winter), to the west of the trough, while pulling cold weather down from Canada to the East. Climate change may be making these sorts of things more common or more severe, but it is nonsensical to ask whether a single storm reflects a trend–trends are only visible across time.

In any case, so we’ve got persistently cold, damp weather in the Eastern part of the country periodically bubbling up into storm systems, some of which intensify into nor’easters along the coast. A nor’easter is an extra-tropical cyclonic storm that feeds off of cold air and a warm ocean. They might loosely be considered winter hurricanes (though they can happen in summer, too), because they bring wind and coastal flooding (with snow or rain) in a similar way.

BUT this February, sea temperatures have been abnormally high. As of a few days ago, sea surface temperatures off of Cape Cod (meaning many miles off the coast–in the Gulf Stream and beyond) were twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit  above normal for this time of year. That doubled the amount of moisture in the air, dramatically increasing the amount of snow that a system feeding in the region could dump.

Again, it’s hard to say if one pool of warm water is climate change, because climate change is a trend not an event, but we do know the ocean is getting warmer. And when it gets warmer, Boston gets buried under six feet of snow.

 


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Retrospective

Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.


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Western Pacific Typhoons

Japan can’t seem to catch a break this year.

Aside from the eruption of Mount Ontake (which was quite a disaster, but tangential to this blog), the country has had a serious problem with weather, especially flooding. Three typhoons have made landfall on the islands so far (Neoguri, Halong, and Phanfone), plus, Tropical Storm Man-yi raked the length of Japan in September, dropping almost twenty inches of rain within two days. At least one non-tropical rainstorm in August caused flooding and deadly mudslides as well. An Internet search for “unprecedented flooding Japan 2014” yields multiple results not all of them from the same storm. 

Japan is large enough that these storms have not all hit the same places, but still, it must be very difficult to be Japanese this year.

Another storm is on the way now, the startlingly monstrous Vongfong. There is some hope that it will weaken before hitting Japan itself, but it is a super typhoon and is one of the most powerful storms on record–ever. It is being compared to last year’s Typhoon Haiyan, the very existence of which convinced many that something has gone really, really wrong with Earth’s atmosphere. Well, now here’s another one.

To be clear, a typhoon is the same thing as a hurricane; different ocean basics use different names for the same type of storm. The collective term for any storm with this kind of structure is ” tropical cyclone.” A tropical cyclone that has sustained maximum wind speeds of 75 MPH or more is a hurricane, a typhoon, or a cyclone, depending on where in the world it is. Tropical depressions and tropical storms are weaker versions of the same thing. A super typhoon is the equivalent of a class 4 or 5 hurricane.

I have found little to no discussion of Japan’s troubles in general, or Super Typhoon Vongfong specifically, in terms of climate change so far. Perhaps the problem is that I can’t read Japanese and so am probably missing the vast bulk of coverage on these storms. I expect that if Vongfong causes a major disaster we may hear more about it here in the English-speaking world.

In the meantime, I am curious–when such discussions do get going, will they have a basis in fact?

Each storm basin produces slightly different storm behavior, with different storm seasons and different numbers of storms being typical per season. The Northwest Pacific basin is the most active in the world; it runs all year, though there is typically a lull over the winter, and its storms are often more powerful than those in the Atlantic. So a season that looks vicious to a writer based in the United States might be normal for Japan. So, is this an unusually powerful typhoon season?

Based on 1981-2010 data, the NW Pacific can produce anywhere from 14 to 39 storms of tropical storm strength or more, with an average of 26. Of these, anywhere from 5 to 26 are typhoons, the average being 16.5. Since 1960, the number of super typhoons per year varies from 1 to 11.

Getting a reliable list of the actual storms in this season is difficult, probably because English sources focus on the two basins that can threaten the United States and the NW Pacific cannot. By comparing several different blogs and news sites–not all of which agree with each other–I conclude that Vongfong is the basin’s ninth typhoon and its sixth super typhoon. These numbers are right in the middle of the typical range for the last several decades, but since the year still has three more months to run, this does look to be a busier than average year–but not an extraordinary one.

I am not a climatologist, so I could easily be contradicted here, but it looks like the only extraordinary thing this year–so far–is Vongfong. That might be enough. And of course, climate change does not cease to play a role in the weather when the weather is average or even calm; global warming is not an event but an element within all events. And even if the frequency of this year’s storms is not unusual, storm surges and total rainfall are higher than they would be without global warming. Recently I made a rough tally of the people who die of global warming? Get ready to add a few more when Vongfong rolls in.

Part of the reason I wanted to write about the Pacific storm season this week is simply that I know most of my readership is American, and American media (somewhat understandably) focuses on American news. I wanted to post a reminder that extreme weather still happens even when it isn’t happening here (though, of course, parts of the US are suffering from extreme weather as well).

But the other reason is that I’ve been watching the Pacific, expecting an extreme season, just as I’d been expecting a mild Atlantic season. This was supposed to be an El Niño year. As I said this spring:

El Niño refers to an unusual weakening of the trade winds, which causes warming of certain parts of the Pacific ocean. The name means “the Child,” referring to the Christ Child, because of the bad fishing the warm water causes off of Peru around Christmas during El Niño years. The pattern radically changes the weather across much of the globe. For example, El Niños partially suppress Atlantic hurricane activity but increase hurricane formation in the Pacific. A stronger trade winds and a cooling of the Pacific is called La Niña (“the Girl,” because it is the opposite of “the Boy”) and likewise alters worldwide weather. The Pacific moves between these two extremes every three to seven years for reasons no one really knows. The cycle is called ENSO, for El Niño Southern Oscillation.

When I wrote that, signs were good (or bad, depending on your perspective) that an El Niño was going to develop. It has not not happened yet, though it is still possible. Apparently, the Pacific waters have warmed, but other aspects of the El Niño pattern have not developed. I don’t know whether this year’s quiet Atlantic hurricane season is related to this almost-Niño or not. The busier than average Pacific season probably is, since the Pacific has been warmer than usual, and tropical cyclones feed on warm water.

An interesting question is whether the Atlantic is also warmer than usual? It might well be, if the relative lack of hurricanes is due to increased wind-shear (as it would be in an El Niño year). That is, warm water can cause increased storm activity, but decreased storm activity does not, all by itself, mean the water is cool.

The thing is that nobody knows what drives the ENSO, and so nobody knows its real relationship to climate change. It’s a reasonable guess that we could be in for more frequent or more severe El Niños, since both involve warming water, but we can’t be sure. Something else besides warm water might be necessary, and without that something else, more frequent El Niños might not happen.

I’m wondering if perhaps this is what the future looks like? Pools of warm water forming in the Pacific (and possibly elsewhere), causing some of the effects associated with El Niño, but not all of them? If so, Asia had better watch out.

If anyone has further insight on this, please drop me a line.

 


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Outbreak

Ebola is genuinely scary.

Of course, some of the fear is unfounded, since Ebola actually isn’t that contagious,but its symptoms are horrific and it kills most of the people it infects, and we all know our hyperconnected society makes us vulnerable to contagion, so, frankly, we’re jumpy. Panic is understandable now, if not very helpful. So when I saw the Bloomberg News article, “Climate Change May Kill More [people] Than Ebola, UK Doctors Say,” I immediately saw the value of the title; climate change is so bad, it’s even worse than Ebola. You can read the article yourself, of course, but an expert’s estimates always seem a little remote. To get a feel for the situation, let’s try doing our own comparison.

First, how bad is Ebola?

According to CNBC’s website, as of the 17th of September:

  • 4,985 Ebola cases have been reported, according to UN officials
  • 2,461 deaths from Ebola have been reported
  • If the current outbreak isn’t controlled, various sources project anywhere between 20,000 to 250,000 will die of the disease.

CNBC says half of these cases had been reported in the previous three weeks, which explains why the number of deaths is only half the number of infections; a lot of the reported infections had not killed yet. About 90% of those who are infected die. It’s not clear to me whether these numbers include cases from previous outbreaks, but since almost 2,500 cases were reported in the weeks before September 17th, and since many cases must have gone unreported, it seems reasonable to estimate that at least 3,000 people died from Ebola this summer. This thing is undeniably scary and tragic.

Coming up with equivalent numbers for climate-related mortality is harder, because virtually every way global warming can kill is mixed in with a lot of other dangers. It’s hard to tease out who died from a changed climate and who would have died anyway if we still had the climate we had before.

Scientists have ways of sorting through this morass, of course.  They can use various statistical methods to come up with reasonable estimates for increased mortality risk in various climate scenarios, but we’re trying to do this on our own. So, let’s start by looking at how many people already die of the kinds of things climate change influences. That will at least put us in the right ballpark of the mess we’re looking at as these dangers get worse.

So.

Every summer, about 2,000 people die from heat related causes in the United States alone. The US has less than 5% of the world’s population, isn’t a very hot country, relatively speaking, and a lot of us can and do use air conditioning freely, so the worldwide figures are probably somewhere in the tends of thousands. How many of those heat-related deaths can be attributed to climate change is, of course, complicated, but clearly some of them are, since climate change has already dramatically increased extreme heat world-wide.

About 10,000 people die every year from tropical cyclones (the type of storm that includes hurricanes), worldwide. Although it isn’t yet clear whether tropical cyclones are getting more frequent or more windy due to climate change, they are getting more dangerous–both sea level rise and a warmer atmosphere’s greater ability to hold water increase the flooding associated with these storms–and the flooding is by far more dangerous than the wind. So some of these deaths, too, are climate-related.

There are other climate-related dangers, such as drought or non-hurricane flooding, or greater risk of insect-borne diseases. There are even more complicating factors for these, but they do probably add some people to the death toll for climate change. But there is another way that climate change can kill: through violence. According to a study released a year ago, higher temperatures make people behave very badly.

The causal mechanism doesn’t seem clear, here–I expect there are several causes involved–but the study established that above-average temperature spikes are strongly associated with increased violence.  Scientists analyzed the results from 60 other studies and found that the association is consistent in all 27 countries studied and applies to both interpersonal violence (murder, rape, assault), and larger-scale horrors, like war and institutional collapse. This doesn’t mean that all violence is climate-related, but that some number of the people who die by the hands of other people wouldn’t if our climate weren’t being warped.

To give an idea of the scale we’re looking at, almost 15,000 were murdered in the US in 2012, a rate that is somewhat high compared to other industrialized countries. That doesn’t count war dead, and of course the US has lost comparatively few people that way in recent years.

So each of these climate-influenced causes have a worldwide death-toll in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Combined, that’s something like a few million deaths a year, some number of which can be laid at the doorstep of global warming. And what is that number? I do not know. But Let’s say it’s 1%. That’s a nice, small, cautious figure. Let’s say that out of every hundred people who die from something climate-related, only one actually died from climate change itself. Well, one percent of a million is still ten thousand, which is over three times our loss to Ebola this summer.

No, this isn’t a scientifically rigorous estimate–but you can see how climate change can indeed kill more people than Ebola. The article title is certainly plausible.

Yes, the Ebola pandemic could continue to mushroom and spread for a while. Things could get much worse before they get better. But the fact of the matter is that disease outbreaks end. Eventually, everybody who is vulnerable to the disease gets it and either dies or develops immunity. Remember that the worst-case scenario estimates cap the Ebola death-toll at somewhere around 250,000 people, world-wide. Other experts put that number as low as 20,000. In contrast, there is no acquired immunity to climate change, so however many people died from it this year, the same number–or more–is likely going to die of it next year and the year after, too. We are only seeing the beginnings of the climate chaos we could be in for.

The death toll from Ebola is going to start coming down eventually. Our losses to climate change are probably lower now than they’ll ever be again. How high those numbers go is in our hands.