The Climate in Emergency

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

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Closer to Home

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

Next week, we may be hit by a hurricane.

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

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

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

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When the Sky Does Not Make Sense

As I explained on Tuesday, the East Coast of the US has been pummeled recently by horrible weather. The worse of the flooding struck South Carolina, but the storm caused flooding every state from Georgia north to Maine and inland as far as Ohio. The storm was remarkable for many reasons, not least because of its vast size and the shear amount of water that fell out of it:

  • In Maine, Caribou, Millinocket, Houlton, and Portland all broke daily rainfall records–Portland’s new record is double the previous record, which was set in 1922. One area, Searsport, received more than ten inches in total from the storm.
  • In Massachusetts, Boston almost doubled its daily rainfall record, previously set in 1899. The worst of the rain had not get moved through the state at that point.
  • In Rhode Island, Provincetown set a new daily record and New Bedford had to shut down Route 18 for two hours due to flooding.
  • Some parts of South Carolina got one or two feet of water out of the storm in total. Dams breached, highways flooded, and caskets literally floated up and out of their graves.

Coastal flooding–a storm surge driven by wind–was just as bad and, in some areas, worse. Just as unprecedented as the flooding was the storm’s structure–record-breaking floods in this part of the world are categorically hurricanes or tropical storms, but this was neither. There is simply nothing in the record-books remotely comparable.

There was a hurricane involved, though.

Hurricane Joaquin was an extremely strong Category 4 storm–its strongest sustained winds were just 2 mph shy of qualifying as a Cat 5. Hurricanes of this intensity are extremely rare–the last one in the Atlantic was five years ago. It hammered the Bahamas and sank a cargo ship with all hands. It never made landfall in the US, but its influence sent high surf along the length of the Eastern Seaboard (in Maine I heard surf about a mile inland–and the closest water is a protected cove that typically has no waves) and contributed to the huge storm surge in the South. The hurricane and the un-named storm were close enough to influence each other, with the monster un-named stormed steering Joaquin and the hurricane funneling moisture into its extratropical partner. This relationship between two storms was also highly unusual and was one of the reasons that meteorologists had trouble developing forecasts for Joaquin.

Detractors sometimes complain that any time the weather gets weird, somebody cries “climate change.” The reason for that is that an altered climate means weird weather. A climate is essentially the normal pattern of weather in a given area–or across the entire planet. When the pattern of typical weather changes, that is, by definition, climate change.

But what are the links between this particular weather event and the greenhouse effect?

Most directly, the sea is higher. Any time you get a storm surge, that surge is worse than it would have been because the sea starts out higher. The difference is only about eight inches (some areas see much greater effective rise because the land is also subsiding), but that is enough to have a huge effect. Anyone who doubts that should imagine the difference between zero and eight inches of water in their living room. Or, for that matter, the difference between zero inches and one inch! Last week’s storm pushed seawater up onto the land in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Today I saw, posted on Facebook, a video of a shark cruising down a flooded street in West Ocean City less than ten miles from my house. People who live in the affected areas can now go out and see exactly what climate change looks like simply by holding a ruler up to the high water marks. That’s about as unambiguous as it gets.

Secondarily, the sea over which Joaquin intensified was unusually warm–at least as of August, that area actually had record-breaking warmth. Warm water feeds hurricanes, so this pool of warm water explains Joaquin’s unusual strength. And Joaquin helps explain the huge amount of moisture in the un-named storm. Pools of warm water, like pools of warm air (heat waves) come and go, but global warming means they are more intense and more frequent now.

Third, a warmer planet means more extreme weather, including more extreme rain events. Again, the issue is frequency. This past week’s event was a thousand-year storm–that’s not a schedule but an expression of probability. The chance of such a storm occurring in any given year is about one in a thousand or 0.1%. Yes, it was certainly possible to get more than one per millennium, just as it’s possible to flip a coin and get heads seventeen times in a row, but you wouldn’t expect it. With extreme rain events happening more often, now we can expect these more often. I doubt this past week’s records will be broken any time soon, these things are still going to be pretty rare, but what isn’t going to be rare is the breaking of some record somewhere, especially those that involve precipitation (including snow!) or drought, or heat.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before!” is what climate change sounds like.

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Your Tuesday Update: Recent Floods

Hi, all,

I’m going to cover the recent flooding on Thursday. In the meantime, I just want to suggest that everyone hold in their awareness those who are currently waterlogged. Parts of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia have flooded due to extreme rains. Coastal areas all up and down the southeastern US have flooded due to wind pushing tides much higher than normal. And the Bahamas are reeling from having been hit by a major hurricane–as is, in a way, Maine; several of the crew of a container ship lost in the hurricane were Mainers.


Bigger Floods in Texas, Reprise

Texas is flooding again, unfortunately.

Tropical Storm Bill formed in the Gulf of Mexico overnight and is–right now, as I write this–coming ashore between Houston and Corpus Christi. Bill is “only” a tropical storm, not a hurricane, but that ranking depends on wind speed, not on overall severity. Tropical storms, by definition, have sustained wind speeds somewhere between 40 and 74 miles per hour–any more, and they become hurricanes, which Bill will not do because these storms can generally only strengthen over water. Bill is not a very windy storm; its highest gusts are likely to be around 50 MPH. But the real problem is flooding.

Historically, most of the people who die in hurricanes and tropical storms drown.

The flooding is from two sources, rain and storm-surge, although the two interact in coastal areas if the storm surge makes it harder for rainwater to drain away. How much rain falls is not just a factor of how much moisture is in the clouds (typically a lot, but it can very) but also how big the storm is and how fast it moves. A large, slow storm takes longer to move over any given area and therefor rains more. Bill is about as wide as the Gulf Coast of Texas–big, but not monstrous. I have not learned whether it is slow-moving.  An old frontal boundary across Arkansas and North Texas will likely merge with Bill, adding more moisture to the system. A sickle-shaped area across parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Illinois is now under a flash flood watch. A much larger sickle of less severe rain reaches all the way to Maryland (which is ok, we need it).

Storm surges are caused by winds and pressure changes pushing along a dome of sea water. The surge looks something like a very rapid, unusually high tide–it can roll in within a few minutes. Before the modern era of accurate storm tracking, people sometimes went down to the beach to watch dramatic surf and then died as unexpected storm surges came in faster than they could run. Tropical Storm Bill’s winds are fairly modest, so its surge is only about four feet at the most, but the storm is rolling in at high tide–and we’re close to the New Moon right now, so this is one of the highest tides of the month. So, while we’re not looking at a monster surge by any means, Bill’s timing makes it worse than it might otherwise have been.

Again, this is weather, not climate. While human-caused climate change underlies all weather, just as a rising tide underlies all waves, this tropical storm is not, all by itself, a climate change story. So far, Bill looks like the same kind of storm the Southern US has always been vulnerable to. But what is a climate-change story is the context into which this storm is now moving.

First and foremost, Texas and Oklahoma are already soaked from weeks of intense, sometimes disastrous rain (following years of horrible drought). When the ground is already wet and rivers are already high, it doesn’t take much more rain to cause a major flood all over again. And while some flooding has always been a fact of life, the rapid swing from drought to weeks of torrential rain has all the hallmarks of the new, globally-warmed normal of extreme weather. It is because of this recent history of saturated ground that I am frankly worried about my friends and family in Texas right now.

Of course, Bill’s storm surge is also eight inches higher than it would have been were it not for sea-level rise–both from seawater expanding as it warms up and from the melting of glaciers. Eight inches might not seem like a lot, but imagine the difference between zero and eight inches of salt water inside your house.

Finally, according to a Alan Weisman, whose really neat book, The World Without Us, I have just read, the Gulf Coast of Texas is now uniquely vulnerable to storm surges because of the oil industry:

When oil, gas, or groundwater is pumped from beneath the surface, land settles into the space it occupied. Subsidence has lowered parts of Galveston 10 feet. An upscale subdivision in Baytown, north of Texas City, dropped so low that it drowned during Hurricane Alicia in 1983 and is now a wetlands nature preserve. Little of the Gulf Coast is more than three feet above sea level, and parts of Houston actually dip below it. –p. 143

So, a storm surge coming ashore near Galveston of “only” two to four feet is really serious business. Petrochemical extraction is not itself climate change, but it’s obviously intimately related.

This is not the first Tropical Storm Bill, nor will it be the last. Meteorologists reuse storm names, only retiring those that, like Katrina, become particularly note-worthy. None of the previous Bills has earned that distinction, and this one probably won’t, either. But we live in a world where even modest storms are more destructive than they might otherwise have been.


Climate Change and Muslims

This is the third in a series of posts on climate change and specific religious groups in the United States. So far, I have written on Catholicism and evangelical Christianity.

I light of the recent attacks in Paris, I wanted to write something about Islam. While I have not personally heard much in the way of Islamaphobia recently, the fact that American Muslims have felt the need to publicly condemn the attacks is just plain depressing. I mean, yes, I condemn the attacks, too, but I don’t feel compelled to say so on YouTube because no one has any particular reason to doubt that I do. That American Muslim children apparently feel differently suggests that some serious misunderstanding is in play.

But this blog isn’t about bigotry per se. It’s about climate change. So I’m going to talk about Islam and climate change, especially since this is not the angle from which non-Muslim Americans (the majority of my readers) usually hear about Muslims. In fact, when I sat down to research for this article I had no clear idea what I’d find. This article should therefore be regarded as extremely provisional, since I am new to the subject myself.

Muslims comprise about one percent of the American population. It may surprise some readers to learn that only a quarter of these people are of Arab descent (the vast majority of Arab-Americans are actually Christian). A third of American Muslims are of South Asian descent, a third are African-American, and the remaining fifteen percent is from everywhere else. While many American Muslims are either immigrants or the offspring of immigrants, African-American culture has had a Muslim component from the beginning because many Africans taken as slaves were Muslim.

So, how do all these people feel about climate change? I don’t know.

There are two reasons I don’t know. One is that Islam, unlike some branches of Christianity, has no inherent hierarchy. There is nothing directly comparable to the Roman Catholic priesthood in any branch of Islam that I have heard of (and yes, though I’m hardly an expert, this is not the first time I’ve read up on Islam, only the first time I’ve researched it in the context of climate change). There are religious scholars who can give advice on Quranic interpretation and Islamic law, and some of these lead prayers, if their communities want them to. That’s what an imam is; a Quranic scholar whom other Muslims want to listen to. There is no central authority on belief and policy except the Quran and the consensus of scholars (which rarely happens, for obvious reasons). Therefore, there is no way to find out what Muslims believe except to ask Muslims. It isn’t something one can just go look up.

And that get’s us to the second reason why I don’t know what American Muslims think and feel about climate change–if anyone has asked them recently, their responses have been drowned out by John Kerry.

I’m serious. Internet searches on “American Muslims and climate change” (or variations on that theme) yield Secretary of State John Kerry explaining that Americans have a Biblical mandate to help Muslim countries cope with climate change. Arguably, he’s right–more on that later–but he fills up literally pages of search results. Interestingly, mixed in with John Kerry were a few sites that appeared to feature assertions and Muslims and climate change are together some kind of scourge against American freedom, but I did not click on those links. Basically, my search engine reacted as though I’d asked about “America, Muslims, and change” and ignored the American Muslims.


But there are American Muslim environmentalist organizations and there is information on climate change and Islam as a whole.  There is, in fact, an Islamic environmental consciousness and Muslims often have less difficulty reconciling science and religion than many Christians do.

Although concern about modern environmental problems originated in “the West” (a rather puzzling code word for the European-derived cultural continuum), the Islamic world has had its own environmental movement since the 1970’s. Resistance to the issue has not been religious but political. Many protest, with some justification, that environmental degradation is an essentially “western” problem and that the “western” countries first got rich by fouling their lands and then decided that pollution is bad just as other countries are starting to make some money, too.

Where religious issues are a barrier to the environmental message, it’s often that environmentalists are not being religious enough; Muslim communities sometimes drop unsustainable practices very quickly once the issue is framed in terms of their own values. Islam not only includes a concept of environmental stewardship equivalent to some Christian interpretations of “dominion over the Earth,” but also has a rich tradition of appreciating and studying the natural world in a religious context. To quote Sarah Jawaid, director of Green Muslims, in Washington, DC:

In the Quran, God identifies nature as a tapestry of signs for man to reflect upon his existence, just as the verses within the Quran are also considered signs, sharing the same Arabic word, ayat.

Generally, people in the Muslim world accept that climate change is real and they take it seriously; in both Turkey and Lebanon, over 70% of those surveyed described climate change as a “very serious problem.” Many, especially in Jordan, are reluctant to pay money to solve the problem, but again that is understandable given the history of who has profited from fossil fuels and who has not (Jordan’s oil production has, in recent decades, been minimal). Imams often ignore climate change in favor of more pressing concerns, but given that many Muslim countries are poor or war-torn or both, that is understandable. Climate skepticism and climate denial are not strong forces in these cultures. Specifically among American Muslims (I was able to find a few tidbits of information) almost two-thirds of those surveyed do not perceive any conflict between science and religion, whereas among Americans as a whole almost two-thirds do perceive such a conflict.

What we can gather from all of this is that while the United States of America does have a problem with climate denial, its small Muslim population is not part of the problem and is probably part of the solution.

John Kerry, meanwhile, has a point. Leaving aside  discussion of the Biblical mandate, many Muslim countries stand to be disproportionately affected by climate change–and have begun to be so already. By pure bad geographical luck, many of them are unusually susceptible to regional symptoms of a global problem–Bangladesh and Indonesia are being flooded while much of the Arab and Persian worlds, plus much of Africa, are drying up.

People in these regions generally know that the climate is changing, whether they are familiar with the greenhouse effect or not. They can tell that the weather is going wrong, that new, more severe disasters are occurring. Many interpret these changes as signs of the imminent end of the world. Muslims, like Christians, believe that God will one day end this world. However, unlike evangelical Christians, who often attribute disaster to the End Days and not to climate change, Muslims tend to see no conflict between natural and theological explanation.

I am not certain if of my understanding here, but that could mean that Muslims can use the religious stories about the end of the world to relate emotionally and morally to the scientific predictions of the end of the world as we have known it.

How all of this relates to the American Muslim experience is not clear to me. I’d be delighted if American Muslim readers can write in an expand my understanding. But since many are immigrants or descendents of immigrants, a lot of American Muslims probably have friends and relatives back in the old country(s) who are variously desiccating or drowning these days, because of climate change. That must matter.

And since climate change causes increased social instability and terrorism, chances are good that the future will see more American Muslim children apologizing on YouTube for things they did not do.


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For All the Beans in Lima

The results are in; after running more than a day past when negotiations were supposed to finish, the Lima conference has produced an agreement. The world is still on track to make a commitment to meaningful greenhouse gas reduction in Paris, next year. This is unquestionably good news.

And yet it is good news only in context, the context being that many countries–including, embarrassingly, mine–continue to refuse to threaten to do nothing at all. Had the agreement been legally binding, as both Europe and common sense wanted, the United States would not have signed on; Congress remains hostile to any climate progress and so American participation required a deal that could be enacted by the executive branch alone. Had the agreement included any kind of outside review of each country’s emissions-reduction plans, India would have bowed out. It is a welcome miracle that any kind of agreement could pass at all.

The text of the agreement itself is here.

The agreement itself notes “with grave concern” that the pledges being made so far are not enough to keep us under 2° C. of warming by century’s end. What we have here is a foundation for further development only–which is more than we had before, and might well be the best we can expect at the moment.

I have addressed such points before, and I still believe this agreement should be hailed as an important start. But where do these disagreements come from? Why and how did we get the imperfect document we have?

The agreement essentially consists of two parts. The first is that all nations of the world will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that each will do so by methods and in amounts of its choice. The second part is that the wealthy nations of the world will together create a fund to help pay for poorer countries to adjust to climate change–each contributor will again choose its own level of involvement.

These two parts together really sound ideal, and could fix the problem if all the relevant countries really put their backs into it, but of course everybody is dragging their feet. No one really wants to give up the perks that using fossil fuel yields. Interestingly, so-called developing countries, such as China, get more sympathy in their foot-dragging. For example, in the deal between the US and China, the latter gets to keep increasing its fossil fuel use by an additional decade in order to catch up economically. In this way, current climate negotiations echo the original Kyoto Protocol, which exempted poor countries entirely.

For the US and Europe to bear more of the cost of climate change is quite fair, for obvious reasons. But for the principle of fairness to become a roadblock to a real solution is intriguingly counterproductive.

From Yahoo News:

The Lima agreement also encourages countries to come up with ways to help poorer nations adapt to the impacts of global warming, like sea-level rise or droughts. But this, too, is vague. The US and Europe have long opposed any deals that would require wealthier nations to compensate poorer countries for “loss and damages” caused by global warming (say, low-lying islands that vanish under the rising seas). So this will continue to be a point of contention.

In the meantime, wealthier nations have pledged to provide (voluntary) climate aid. Under a separate deal, nations agreed to raise $100 billion per year from public and private sources to help poorer countries adapt and adjust to a hotter planet. It’s still unclear where this money will come from, however.

That the US and Europe are so far content to leave low-lying nations to their fate (a fate that we unquestionably created) is reprehensible. That the wealthy countries of the world are willing to contribute to the fund is at least a step in the right direction–it indicates some glimmerings of a sense of responsibility.

But the longer we, as a species, go before actually getting off fossil fuel, the bigger the price tag for damages will get and the faster those damages will accrue. China, for one, stands to loose much of its fresh water supply as glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau melt and disintegrate. If China hopes to lift its entire population out of poverty by using fossil fuel for a few more years, it will fail. If the United States hopes to assuage our guilt to the world’s poor by allowing China to keep polluting, then we will fail.

If humanity does agree to forgo fossil fuel entirely by 2050, as we must in order to have a prayer of staying under 2° C. of warming, it is right and proper for the countries that have had such fuels longer to make the deeper and earlier cuts. That is fair. But that isn’t what we’re doing, yet. Collectively, we’re still limiting our emissions reductions to what we can manage without having to make radical economic changes at home. Getting as much energy as we want is still the priority. And China, understandably, wants more energy–it wants what we have, and the world accepts that, in fairness, China should get it.

All of this shows that, collectively, we still don’t believe that global warming is real.

China can’t get what the United States has, because there isn’t enough wealth on the planet to go around. The US, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, the wealthy countries of the world took more than our fair share of a limited supply of matter and energy and that supply is mostly used up now; the atmosphere where we send the exhalations of our industry is full now. Pretending that the entire planet can and should come up to our standard of living before our species gives up fossil fuel–in defiance of the laws of physics–will help no one.

That the US is simultaneously clinging to its fossil fuel economy and paying into the climate fund suggests a related disconnect. These payments should be framed as damages–the US has become very wealthy and powerful by reaping the benefits of a rapacious economic system while forcing other countries, its own poor, and the people of the future to shoulder the costs. We should pay damages. But, so far, the US government refuses to admit it. In so refusing, of course, our representatives fail to acknowledge either guilt or debt and so retain the option to make only those payments we can afford–prioritizing our own wealth yet again. Our payments to the climate fund thereby appear as a kind of charity, one paid off the dividends of rendering certain people in need of charity to begin with.

I have a vague memory of a wonderful Henry David Thoreau quote–something about how when people ask him why he does not give money to the poor, he answers “how do you know you didn’t take that money from the poor to begin with?” I can’t find that quote, however, so I can’t see if I’m remembering it correctly. I don’t have a copy of the relevant book. An online collection of Thoreau quotes does supply a passage with a similar sentiment, however:

It may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.
Thus, by not committing to getting off fossil fuel, the would has not only delayed a true solution to the problem but also, subtly but definitely, transformed the principle of fairness into one more excuse for the powerful (including China’s leaders) to take advantage of the powerless.
This does not mean we should collectively reject the results of Lima; on the contrary, we could be looking at the beginnings of a real solution, and the political leaders responsible should be rewarded in their home countries and rewarded lavishly. They just shouldn’t be allowed to rest on their laurels.
We, each of us, need to demand of our leaders even greater cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and even greater pledges to the climate fund. The United States, and other countries in a similar position, must accept responsibility for paying reparations–thereby shouldering the true cost of our own actions.
Take to the ballot boxes. Take to the streets.

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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.