The Climate in Emergency

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


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Catastrophe?

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, there’s a real possibility that we could lose another city to a monster hurricane next week.

(Yes, we haven’t lost Houston permanently, just like we didn’t lose New Orleans permanently after Katrina. I don’t mean to imply otherwise, only that we’re looking at very big-deal phenomena, here)

Hurricane Irma is, as I write, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic (Pacific storms have been stronger) and it’s pointed, more or less, at Florida. It will certainly wreak havoc in the Caribbean, although which islands will be most strongly affected is still unclear. The various computer models all agree that it will head more or less arrow-straight for the Straits of Florida, when it will abruptly turn some species of north. Why will it turn? I haven’t found an explanation. It’s tempting to say that the power of the wishes and prayers of the people of Houston are having an impact, but if wishes and prayers worked like that, Houston wouldn’t have flooded to begin with. Probably there is an entirely prosaic explanation the TV weather people aren’t bothering to talk about. The important part is where will Irma go after it turns? It could enter the Gulf. It could buzz-saw up the East Coast (and hit me, not incidentally).

Or, Irma could send a 20-foot storm surge across Miami, a city of almost six million people less than seven feet above sea level–one that’s already starting to flood regularly on the highest tides.

I want to be very clear–I’m not saying that Irma will destroy Miami, since the meteorologists aren’t saying that yet, and they know better than I do. I’m also not saying that Miami, which might well escape, is somehow more important than Antigua and Puerto Rico and parts of Cuba, and the other places that almost certainly won’t escape. This is going to be very, very bad somewhere, regardless of where that somewhere turns out to be. What I am saying is that this is how national-scale climate disasters are going to happen, maybe this year, maybe in the future.

If Miami floods catastrophically next week (or if New Orleans floods again, which is also possible), the United States will be dealing with three such floods simultaneously (the third is Baton Rouge, which flooded due to a rather bizarre weather pattern last year and has still not fully recovered), two of them in major cities–and the hurricane season still has two months to run. A third major hit this year is not out of the question (say, New York? or Boston? or Washington DC?). I don’t mean to make like Chicken Little–just because catastrophe sounds plausible does not mean it’s going to happen–and the United States, as a nation, is very rich and can probably absorb all these costs. State and local officials will likely do excellent jobs to protect life and limb in the teeth of yet another storm, and together we will get through this. But you can see how the costs of multiple disasters can pile up. And then pile up again.

Climate change makes disasters more likely.  This summer may be showing us what the future looks like.

But is that the same as saying that the frequency of disaster has actually increased, yet. The way the laws of chance work, a clump of bad luck doesn’t necessarily mean anything. You can get heads three times in a row–the unusual run is just balanced out by more tails, if you flip your coin enough times. Humans are notoriously bad at telling the difference between a clump of luck and actual meaningful pattern, which is why we invented statistics. Personally, I’m guessing that we are in the midst of meaningful change, but as I’ve written before, I haven’t been able to find real figures on whether our rate of extreme weather events is changing. I am fairly confident that such figures exist, and I wish they were easier to find.

Even without figures on whether extremes as a group are occurring more often, we can look at certain types of extremes. Hurricanes, for example, have been studied extensively but with difficulty, because of problems in the historical data. Whether hurricanes are getting more frequent is therefor hard to say, though the proportion of hurricanes that grow to category 4 or 5, or that reach higher latitudes, does seem to be increasing, and storm surges are definitely getting worse because of sea level rise.

But say there’s a category of disaster that could be being increased by climate change but isn’t, yet. So? What we know is that climate change is real and that it makes catastrophe more likely. Must we wait until all types of catastrophe are obviously worse before we act?

 


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Many Waters Cannot Quench

I was going to write something to do with my fortieth birthday, which has just occurred, and offers various possibilities for potentially interesting riffs on life. I had some ideas. But then Hurricane Harvey got in the way, as hurricanes tend to do.

To be clear, I am not personally being impacted by Harvey, I’m in a different part of the country, but I have friends in Texas and I’m thinking of them. And, when any form of weather produces “catastrophic” damage (the term being used by the experts), I really cannot ignore it.

Voices in the Dark

Social media is an odd but effective way to watch an unfolding disaster. Not that it can replace journalism, we do need fact-checking, context, analysis, etc., but the unfiltered voices of the multitudes add an immediacy that the news alone cannot match.

I’m a visual thinker, and when information comes to me in a non-visual format, such as radio or text, I often visualize darkness. Thus, my experience of Superstorm Sandy, aside from its brush through my own neighborhood (racing the storm home in the middle of the night, wind starting to buffet the trailer at three AM on a deserted highway in Delaware) was of voices crying in the dark, on Twitter. The one begging for a generator to keep her ventilator going, somewhere in New York, still haunts me. Did she live the night? I don’t know.

This time the voice in the dark has been a self-appointed citizen journalist, my friend, Bridgette Mongeon. I quote excerpts from her throughout this article with her permission.

Dear friends and family,
Thank you for your prayers during this approaching storm. The rain fall that is expected in Houston and all along the Texas coast is astronomical. I have lived in this home through Ike 2008, Allison in 2001, and our first year we moved in was Alicia 1983. Allison, was a tropical storm that played havoc in our area. Allison was just before 9/11 and was a double whammy on our psyche that I still feel rise up in my belly. Somehow the two are connected and re-stimulating.

I do not know what to expect for my immediate neighborhood. This area has had a tremendous influx of new building and I have no idea what that means for the flow of that much water. I am not evacuating . So many have to evacuate from the south. We have been asked to keep off the roads. I also need to keep an eye on the studio as well as my home…. Harvey is stalling and picking up intensity, which means it could hit land as a cat 4. If people in Houston expected a cat 4 or 5 we all would have been boarding up the windows…. Either way, we are on the east side of the hurricane, which we in the south call, “the dirty side” This, as it sounds, is not favorable…. Prayers go to all the people south of us and along the coast. They are evacuating quite a few people today. Evacuations can often be a challenge and dangerous events because of the amount of people. It is their safety that is priority right now.

Be safe Texans. Thanks for your prayers and well wishes everyone else. I’ll update when and if I can.

August 25, 8:13 AM

Since then, she has been posting regular updates for both local residents (tornado warnings, notices of shelter openings) and people farther afield (a detailed description of drainage patterns in the Greater Houston Area). She still has electricity, internet, and news. Not everybody in her area do, and some evidently have internet but not much else, so she’s acting as an information hub. Even the official journalists are being impaired by the storm–one of her local TV stations has flooded and is off the air. She can hear tornadoes, spun off by the hurricane. She reports that reservoirs upstream are being opened, worsening the flooding, yes, but the alternative is a dam breach, which would be worse. She says she’s ok. Her house is not flooding, though those of some of her neighbors are. She posts cell phone video and drone video from friends showing expanses of fast, brown water.

For my non-Houston friends- to help you understand the devastation:
Houston is huge. The greater metropolitan area is circled by the Grand Parkway – which is 170 miles long. That makes the area of the circle inside the Grand Parkway over 2200 sq. miles.
2200 square miles of densely habited, urban and suburban, areas is flooded.
Imagine if the entire state of Delaware, with twice the population of Manhattan, was under water.
That’s Houston.
It’s still raining.

August 27, 10:42 PM

Reporting from Houston, Tx-The love between neighbors here is stronger than the rain, no matter what race, faith, or political party #Harvey

August 28th, 1:00 PM

A few minutes ago, I learned that of those reservoirs–the ones that began releasing water to avoid an uncontrolled flood–one has been over-topped anyway. The other may soon follow. The Houston area has received over half its typical yearly allotment of rain in the past four days alone.

The storm is heading back out to sea, where it will strengthen, before making landfall a second time, probably in Louisiana. But it’s also possible it could hit Houston twice.

An Unprecedented Storm

As is often true of big disasters, this one owes itself to multiple factors. One, obviously, is the storm itself is unusual. Not only did Harvey grow very quickly into a very powerful storm (Category 4), it then stalled right over Houston for several days, dropping all of its water in the same place, rather than over an extended track, as most storms do. This is not the first time a storm has done such a thing, but the amount of rain is literally without historical precedent. The National Weather Service frankly admitted it has no idea what the impacts are going to be and has even had to create new colors for its weather maps in order to represent the scale of this storm. This returning to sea for more energy thing is also highly unusual.

The other part of the problem–and here I’m drawing on information from Bridgette–is that Houston is prone to flooding anyway. The soil is clay-based and does not drain well, and a development boom has dramatically worsened matters by paving over a lot of ground. There is no way for most of that water to go anywhere, except by flowing down streets and through buildings. Flooding is common in parts of the city even in ordinary rainstorms. For an extraordinary rainstorm to occur here cannot help but have catastrophic results.

What the long-term results will be are not clear, yet. An online search for “economic impact of Harvey” yields varied results–that recovery will take years, that it will be quick, that economic impacts will be large and widespread, that they will be minimal. No one really knows. The storm isn’t even over.

But two facts are worth noting.

One is that Bridgette is right; Houston, with the assistance of the rest of the nation (and even other countries–reportedly, Mexico is mobilizing to help, as it did following Katrina) is stronger than Harvey, and will survive. One of the advantages of being a very rich nation is that we can sustain billions of dollars of damage and simply pay for it. There may be bureaucratic or political hang-ups, we don’t know yet, and the physical acts of clean-up and rebuilding will take time, but we can do this.

The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that we’re not just looking at paying for clean-up and repair. Houston is the fifth-largest economy in the US, and it’s taking the better part of a week off. Zero output. None. Bad news. Houston is also the home of much of American oil refining. Right now, some refineries are closed because workers can’t drive in to work, there is no damage (or hadn’t been, as of yesterday evening) but that could change. There are other Houston-based businesses taking a hit, too, such as Sysco, the company that produces supplies for virtually every restaurant you’ve ever set foot in (seriously, look at restaurant water pitchers–they’re all exactly the same because they come from the same place). The United States as a whole is not in danger, we will get through this, but Harvey is not a local problem. It’s national, possibly global.

The one thing the flooding in Houston is not is the fault of local officials for not evacuating everybody. Bridgette, again:

We have learned from the many storms that there is a way to evacuate. The process is that the lower lying areas or those that are first in harm’s way must be the priority. If everyone from Houston got on the freeways and evacuated, then those in real trouble could not get out. An example was the horrific Hurrican Rita evacuation in 2005. Rita was just weeks after Katrina. And Rita was going to be stronger than Katrina. We were all a little shell shocked down here. During Hurricane Rita, people panicked and according to Wiki “An estimated 2.5 – 3.7 million people fled before Rita’s landfall, making it one of the largest evacuations in United States’ history.”

I was here. I stayed. Here is what happened. It was wall to wall cars. No one could move. It was hot, and gas ran out in the cars on the road. No one could get gas in to help the stranded. I fielded phone calls from friends who were caught in traffic for hours. Many finally turned around, but that was impossible because the city then opened the southbound to go north. It was excruciatingly hot and dangerous. I see the reports say that 90-118 people died even before the storm. A bus of elderly started on fire, and all were killed. These same roads and feeder roads that people traveled on are now under water in this storm. Evacuation of so many people is impossible. And, remember no one could understand how the other factors would play in this storm [unprecedented rain, recent development boom]. The weather men do an excellent job of predicting, but they can’t be sure. People prepared the best they could. Some did bug out.

I’m proud of how those in authority handled and are handling things, and I’m here. I can tell you now, after living through Allison, Houston has a long row to hoe, and at this writing, until mean big brother Harvey decides to quit picking on us and go away, we won’t know how bad things will be. We will recover because Houston is stronger than Harvey, but one thing is sure, in my book, this is no one’s fault.

August 29, 1:00 AM [emphasis mine]

So far, the confirmed death toll from Harvey is just 14 people. If Rita is any indication as to what a full evacuation would have looked like, and given that the roads where those traffic jams occurred have flooded, the decision not to evacuate any but those at highest risk may have saved thousands of lives.

Climate Change

A storm like Harvey could have happened before anthropogenic climate change. We have no record of such a thing, but perhaps one occurred before or record began. But there are several factors which make a Harvey-type storm more likely than before we monkeyed with the climate.

First, the Gulf of Mexico is warmer now, which makes deep pools of very warm water in the Gulf much more likely. When a hurricane moves across such  pool, it can intensify suddenly–which is exactly what Harvey did. It’s also what both Katrina and Rita did, as each grew dramatically in much the same way.

Second, the air is warmer now, and warmer air carries more moisture, which means more rain. In hurricanes, it’s the wind that gets the press–we rate hurricane intensity by wind speed–but it’s the water that causes the damage. Many storms, notably Irene, a few years ago, cause their most severe damage after being downgraded out of hurricane status, simply by raining a lot. Harvey is another in this pattern.

Third, the reason Harvey parked itself right over Houston for so long is that it was trapped between two high pressure zones. This scenario ought to sound familiar, because persistent high pressure zones have been involved in almost every severe weather story I’ve covered for years, now. Droughts, heat waves, snow storms, extra-tropical rainstorms, and hurricanes have all made the transition from bad weather to unprecedented disaster, in part, because they stayed in the same place longer than normal–because of persistent blocking highs. And while it hasn’t been confirmed yet, the changes in the jet stream that create persistent blocking highs (and misplaced polar vortexes and weird, hurricane-like winter storms) may be being caused by melting of the sea ice in the arctic.

One final thing to consider; yes, we are stronger than Harvey. We were stronger than Katrina, Irene, and Sandy. We were stronger than the California superdrought that drained a state’s reservoirs, the atmospheric river storms that filled those reservoirs up again and nearly breached the Oroville dam, the heat waves that grounded airplanes in Phoenix two years running, shockingly intense wildfires, and the floods in Baton Rouge that acted like a hurricane but weren’t. But how much longer are we going to keep our strength up as these things become more likely and occur more often?

Can’t we just bite the bullet and stop warming the atmosphere?