The Climate in Emergency

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


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Catching Up

There’s this thing that happens when I do several weeks of re-posts and excerpts for whatever reason–so many things happen that I could be writing about that it all builds up and then when I come back to writing new posts, I don’t know which topic to pick up. I can’t decide.

So to clear the decks, here’s what we’ve missed.

Severe Weather

January and February brought record-breaking temperatures to parts of South America and Australia (Australia’s heat waves were so bad that infrastructure was damaged and wild fruit bats fell dead out of the trees) as well as floods in some areas and severe droughts in others. The Northern Hemisphere, meanwhile, had bitter cold in some areas and record-breaking warmth in others, due to a destabilized polar vortex, possibly climate change-related–and some areas had massive snowfalls, which is not generally a sign of unusual cold (it doesn’t have to be very cold for snow) but simply a wintery version of a flood.

The American Midwest flooded severely through March, largely as a result of huge snowfalls, causing major damage to stored crops and to farm lands and equipment–much of which isn’t covered by any existing disaster relief program because this particular kind of disaster has never happened before.

Meanwhile, Southern Africa also saw catastrophic flooding in March, the result of a cyclone (the same kind of storm is called a hurricane in the Atlantic) that made landfall just days after unrelated rainstorms caused regional flooding. Cyclone Idai was an odd storm. Though only a Class 2, which seems minor by American or Asian standards, it was the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, and it developed mostly between Madagascar and Africa–apparently storms in that area don’t usually become powerful, but this one had an unusually warm pool of water beneath it, a story we should find familiar. The fact that the area between Madagascar and Africa is not large also suggests to me that Idai underwent rapid intensification, another familiar sign of the new normal.

Migrants continue to head north from Honduras, partly because worsening droughts and rising temperatures are destroying their farms back home. Even if the US were better prepared to handle the crisis well, the flood of refugees would be a challenge.

Then there was the night in April when the entire US Eastern Seaboard was under a tornado watch and some tornadoes dropped down–I’m not bothering to link to a source on that one because I spent part of that night huddled in the guest bathroom with my dogs listening to weird noises on the roof. I am my source.

Of course, it’s still difficult to be sure that a rash of weird weather is actually as abnormal as it seems. Ours is a big world, and there’s lots of room for bad luck in it, while good luck occurs in other places–and I still have not found any figures addressing changes in the number of extreme events over time. But not only is extreme weather symptomatic of climate change in general, but many of these events involve types of extreme weather specifically linked to climate change, such as rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones, heat waves, and a destabilized polar vortex.

Climate Protests

I talked about the recent series of climate protests in Europe, mostly led by teens and children, last month. Well, there’s been another one, this time in London, and it was huge, involving the arrest of 1000 protestors (mostly for protesting in places they didn’t have permits for), and organized by a group called Extinction Rebellion that is less than a year old. They are deliberately disruptive, with an aim towards calling attention to the emergency we are in. Greta Thunberg participated, and addressed Parliament (I’m unclear as to whether she literally spoke within the halls of power or if she delivered her speech elsewhere, trusting they would learn of it).

The action was part of a planned world-wide week of protests, but I have been unable to find any confirmation of events outside of London. Either they didn’t happen or they have been hushed up. Somehow. Coverage of the London events have been quite minimal.

Politics

The Green New Deal continues to percolate through the national conversation–there are articles about it published this week, and various alternatives are being proposed and debated. Great!

Meanwhile, approximately 187 people are now running for president, and more may soon declare, and I’m going to have to write about all of them with respect to climate sooner or later.

So, What’s the Story?

Obviously, there is plenty to talk about. And I’m going to talk about a lot of it. You should, too. We need to keep climate change in the public eye.

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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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Ellicott City

Ellicott City, Maryland flooded again, about a week and a half ago (May 27th). We are not talking about a little water in the parking lots, here—for those who haven’t seen the coverage, the streets became rapids. I’ve seen video of cars flowing along in the water, their windshield wipers beating back and forth forlornly. I keep thinking about the people in those cars. The first floors of the buildings are completely gutted. At least one man has died.

The river crested at a record 23.6 feet after rising almost 18 feet in just two hours.

What makes the flood especially upsetting for locals is that a similarly catastrophic flood all but destroyed the town only two years ago. The community was just getting itself together again, and now they have to start over again.

Since 1768, Ellicott City has flooded 15 times. Not all of the floods have been catastrophic, but the town does get wet often. It’s not just bad luck; Ellicott is an old mill town, so of course it sits in a place with plenty of water power. Three streams converge here and flow into the Patapsco River, bringing all the runoff from a large, bowl-shaped valley straight through town.

But while Ellicott City has always been flood-prone, but they haven’t always been the same kind of flood. Traditionally, the problem was the rise of the Patapsco, meaning that the floodwater would rise up into the community. Now, the smaller streams also jump their banks, which is why recent floods have roared down through the town, turning the streets into rapids.

What’s different?

Development over recent decades has increased the area of impermeable surface in the watershed dramatically, making flooding much more likely. Also, of course, there’s climate change.

As readers may know, climate change in general increases the chance of extreme weather. Rain storms are both less frequent and more intense, so that areas with no net change in rainfall get both more droughts and more floods. And in the Northeast of the United States, or, by some measures, the whole eastern part of the country, rain intensity is increasing faster than anywhere else in the country. So, yes, repeat catastrophes such as Ellicott City has suffered are part of the new normal.

(Note that we’re talking about likelihood, not possibility: for the same location to get two 1000-year floods back-to-back, as Ellicott City has, wouldn’t have been impossible under the old climate regime, because “1000-year flood” doesn’t mean once per 1000 years, but rather a one-in-1000 chance of occurrence in any year. It’s unlikely, but entirely possible, to have several in a row. The issue is whether these really were 1000-year floods; climate change and development together may have changed the odds.)

In fact, recent flooding in Maryland (an identical weather pattern developed over Frederick two weeks earlier) may have a more direct connection to warming temperatures, although this information comes from an article arguing almost the opposite point. Apparently, we have been “stuck in a late July weather pattern, one in which the jet stream has built a ridge of high pressure over the Mid-Atlantic.” But because this was May and early June, the ocean waters are still cool. The combination sends unusually wet weather into Maryland. So, while the author was quite correct in describing all of this as a local weather event, something that could occur by bad luck regardless of climate change, it is a weather event caused by the atmosphere behaving as though July had come two months early—hotter, in other words.

Yes, weather is weather and climate is climate, and it’s worth bearing the difference in mind, but when unseasonably warm weather causes record-breaking storms, it seems disingenuous to say global warming is not at fault.

But disaster is never just about climate. Ellicott City is far from being the only flood-prone area in Maryland, but most flood zones aren’t aren’t also the busy centers of quaint historic districts. So putting a city in harm’s way, and then exacerbating the harm through risky development, is definitely part of the picture.

The other major issue is that Ellicott City has been studying its flood risk and fielding proposals for mitigation since the 1970’s. Not much has been done. One proposal offered after a flood in 2011 was actually rejected by town leaders as too expensive. They changed their mind after the 2016 flood, but the work hadn’t been completed yet before the place flooded again. This historical failure to act is having serious political consequences, now.

“Natural disasters” are always the result of a combination of extreme weather (or extreme geology) and human responses to those events. The scale of the tragedy is always either compounded or mitigated by the economic wherewithal of the affected people and by political decisions about acceptable risk, acceptable loss, and how much money certain people’s lives and livelihoods are worth.

And now, climate change itself is a result of decisions, both large and small, about who or what we are going to treat as important.


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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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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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Recent Flooding

I spotted a Facebook meme this morning that listed a rather startling number of places having unusual floods over just the past two weeks:

  • France
  • Germany
  • Taiwan
  • Texas
  • Beijing
  • Russia
  • Mexico City
  • Romania
  • Pakistan
  • Australia
  • Ukraine
  • Belgium

The point, of course, was that to have so many floods in such a short period of time is a clear sign of global warming. On one level, that’s clearly true; part of what climate change means is that floods are worse now. But reality is more complex than any meme–for example, increased flooding can be caused by changes in land management as well as by changes in the weather. So, since I’d rather pass around detailed and verified facts than a meme that simply sounds plausible, let’s look into this, shall we?

Europe

As one might guess, all the floods in Europe are actually one flood; France, Germany, Belgium, Romania, and the Ukraine–plus Poland, the Netherlands, and Austria–have all been drenched by a series of slow-moving storms trapped above the continent by an omega block. An omega block is essentially a tight curve in atmospheric currents that keeps a weather system from moving for the duration. Exactly how, or even whether, the omega block might be connected to the greenhouse effect is not clear, but a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and therefore can drop more rain from any given storm.

And there could be a link with the omega block. There was one with the polar vortex, after all.

In any case, is whether this weather is unusual. If Paris flooded every other week, this latest flood would be no big deal, except for the people who happened to be in the middle of it. I have not been able to find a detailed analysis of how often this type of flooding has occurred historically. What I have found is consistent with this event being a real story, if perhaps not as bizarre as it seems, at least in France.

Since record-keeping began in 1873, there have four severe floods in Paris, of which this latest is the mildest. In 1910, the Seine River crested 8.62 above normal (28′ 3″) and set the record. In 1955, the river crested at 7.1 meters (23′ 3″) and at 6.18 meters (20′ 3″). This year’s flood crested at “only” 6.1 meters (20 feet even). But, and this is a critical but, this year’s storms did drop more rain on France than any recorded storm has before.

While this flood didn’t break the Paris record, we can compare the number of record-breaking rainfall events from 1980 to 2010 with the norm over the previous 80 years–and the number is up by 12% world-wide. In Europe, it’s up 31%.

Pakistan

I actually haven’t found any reports of flooding in Pakistan over the last few weeks–though it’s possible that all the attention on Paris have messed with the search engine’s algorithms, that happens sometimes. Either way, apparently Pakistan flooded in April, though, so the country need not feel left out.

Russia

I have seen various articles referring to recent floods in eastern Russia, but I have not found any further information–except that Russia apparently also flooded in April.

China

Again, I have not been able to find any information, aside from the fact that serious flooding around Beijing has occurred recently. I am guessing that flooding in Taiwan was connected, however.

Mexico City

I have not found confirmation of flooding in Mexico over the past few weeks.

Texas

Parts of Texas and Oklahoma have definitely flooded. Again. There doesn’t seem to be an exotic reason, just garden-variety rain in abundance. Texas has flooded several times in recent years.

A Lot of Water

Sometimes I spend several hours researching a subject and find some great material. This was not one of those times. Basically, to recap, sometimes it rains a lot, and it’s happening more often because of climate change. Also, Facebook memes are not entirely reliable, but we need to do something about climate change anyway.

Just another day living with the new normal.


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Your Tuesday Update on Wednesday

Hi, all,

Looks like I did not post on Tuesday as I meant to! As noted, for the time being I’m only doing mini posts on Tuesdays and doing a full post on Thursday. This, then, is your mini-post.

Last night, I heard on the news a story about extreme weather all over the US–flooding, hail, a dust storm, all within the same few days, though widely separated in space. I also heard my husband exclaim that California is rather seriously on fire right now. He’s a firefighter, and reads national fire reports regularly. There have been two fatalities this year associated with wildfire, and a huge amount of money invested in getting the fires contained. But he doesn’t know whether any of this is actually unusual in an objective sense.

ARE we in a spot of climate-change-induced bad weather? Certainly we could be, as climate change makes both droughts and floods more likely, but I do not know whether this week is actually unusual, or if the newscasters just wanted to talk about the weather for whatever reason. I did not do a thorough search for information. But I did hop online and poke around and I found an interesting article about different kinds of extreme weather. What struck me is that while heavy rain events are getting more frequent, there’s no evidence that tornadoes and severe thunderstorms are–because we do not actually know how many such storms are normal. Up until the last few decades, most supercell storms must simply have gone unrecorded. Now we have a lot of weather radar capable of spotting most of them, but there’s a lot we don’t know. For example, most tornadoes never have their windspeed measured, so their severity is measured strictly by how much damage they cause. That means there is no way to compare tornadoes to each other independent of what they happen to pass over. The whole thing is similar to the situation with hurricanes, only worse, because we have even fewer data to work from.

So when they say there’s no evidence that tornadoes are increasing, there’s also no evidence that they are not.

Here is the article I read, if you want to check it out.