The Climate in Emergency

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


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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.


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How About that Weather?

Recently, a friend of mine posted a picture on his Facebook page, commenting that he “didn’t know it was that bad.” I didn’t, either, though I did suspect it, and it does not seem to have made the news at all. I’m talking drought figures. Frankly, I am confused by the legality of re-posting pictures online, so I usually don’t. In the interests of avoiding a thousand extra words I’m making an exception and providing the picture. Please, if you own this one and don’t want it here, let me know and I’ll take it down.

 

The legend at the top indicates this is a map of how many more inches of precipitation different parts of the United States would need to get to “PDI -0.5.” A bit of poking around online reveals that PDI is probably the same thing as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, or PDSI, and that -.5 means is more or less the drier boundary of normal for a given area. According to this map, then, as of June 6th, to get to Normal, parts of California would need 9-12 inches of rain, which is a problem because that’s about as much as what that area gets all year.

But we knew California was in trouble. That’s not the surprising part.

The surprising part is the serious drought in the East. Southern Florida apparently needs 12 to 15 inches of rain to get to normal, parts of Vermont, and some parts of the Southern Appalachians need 6 to 9 inches. Where I live, in Maryland, needs up to 3 inches, which might not sound like a lot, but we did just get a solid week of rain. Much of the rest of the East is at least mildly dry. It’s not that any of this is severe (Florida is very rainy, so a proportionately mild or moderate deficit still has a lot of inches), it’s that people act like it’s invisible. I have heard no mention of it on the news, heard nobody (except the friend who posted the picture) talking about it, and I have not found anything discussing any of this online.

According to another graphic on the same site, much of the Eastern US has gotten about half to three-quarters of its normal amount of rainfall so far this year. Another site, one run by the USDA, lists Maryland as having no drought as of June 2nd, with some areas merely “abnormally dry” the week before. The disparity could be due to the use of different methods–calculating the severity of drought is somewhat complicated, since it depends on knowing not only how much moisture a place has but also how much it needs. The dates on the two sites (June 2nd vs. June 6th) could also be relevant.

Personally, I’d go with the site that says Maryland has a bit of an issue. It has been a dry spring. with some parts of the state (like ours) getting no rain at all for weeks on end in April and May. We have also had some fantastic rainstorms, most recently a series of interrelated storms that lasted almost a solid week, but much of that water probably ran off without soaking in–heavy rains on dry soil tend to slide off. I spoke with a farmer who said her neighbor found completely dry soil just a few inches down after the first big downpour of that rainy week.

Which brings up another reason why the reports of Maryland’s drought could be wrong–measured by actual inches of rain as compared to what we typically receive, we could be ok. Measured by soil moisture and groundwater recharge, we might not be; the thing is, Maryland currently has no effective way of checking whether its groundwater is being recharged.

All of this is, of course, weather rather than climate. And in the grand scheme of things, my state’s drought is, at worst, still mild. But the situation is still worth noting for two reasons. One is that this is what climate change looks like–larger, more intense rainfalls less often. It’s not dramatic for us Easterners this week, but it is vaguely, eerily, different from what we’re used to, and we should notice. More importantly, a society that isn’t in the habit of noticing the weather, either as individuals or through the news media, leaves itself vulnerable to being told lies. Like when pretty much everybody except the Eastern US was horribly hot last winter and various climate-denying wags asked “where’s global warming” because the East happened to be snowy.

Personal, casual observation of the weather is not, of course, a reliable measure of climate, that’s why we have climate scientists and data collection protocols and big, giant computers, etc. There are important patterns that just aren’t visible without analysis. But if we abandon looking for those patterns we can see, the step into a dangerous apathy becomes very short.

 

 

 

 


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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.