The Climate in Emergency

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

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While COVID Rages….

Tall, puffy clouds against a dark blue sky. Sunlight from behind the clouds makes their edges very bright, although centers of the clouds are dark. The picture shows the literal meaning of the expression that dark clouds have silver linings.

Photo by Simone Viani on Unsplash

So, what exactly is the COVID-19 pandemic doing to the fight against climate change?

I’m hardly the only one asking, and this isn’t the first time I’ve asked–I’ve addressed the outbreak on this blog here and here and here. But as the pandemic proceeds, the conversation evolves. I see fewer posts on social media extolling the environmental benefits of an economic down-turn. While carbon emissions and other environmental problems are in fact lessening, they are caused by a situation that is obviously temporary. The real question is how will we be different when the pandemic passes? Will we collectively be better or worse?

Silver Linings, the Cases for and Against

I keep thinking, if we can shut down the economy and radically up-end our lives for a pandemic, surely we can do the same for climate change? There is no excuse, now, we’ve seen what fast action looks like, the bluff has been called. Quite true. But does that mean we’re going to collectively wake up, or are we seeing one more nail in our self-built coffin?

The Case for Optimism

There are writers who see cause for optimism in our current situation.

It’s true that we will need to rebuild society when the pandemic is over–what’s happening now is doing damage, like a cast that protects a healing bone but also forces muscles to atrophy–and there is no reason we have to rebuild things exactly as they used to be. We can use the opportunity to change. And there is reason to think that our collective experience now is making us better suited to make the right choices for climate in the near future.

Many of the mistakes we’ve made that are making the current outbreak worse (poor political leadership, distrust of science, poor assessment of risk) are also making the climate crisis worse–while the successes we’re seeing exercise skills that climate action needs also (cooperation, altruism, a focus on necessities rather than luxuries). It’s possible we will learn from our mistakes and our successes and apply the results to climate.

Big changes tend to happen suddenly, not gradually–it’s in the nature of complex systems, such as societies, to maintain the status quo against huge amounts of pressure and then to flip like a switch when a critical point is reached. Such critical points cannot be predicted from prior conditions alone. If the climate cause has seemed hopeless, it may be only that we can’t see the coming changes from our current vantage point; the shift we need may be right ahead.

Maybe the shift is going to be triggered by a novel coronavirus?

The Case for Pessimism

On the other hand, the American response to COVID-19 has been, by and large, terrible. Major population centers are starting to see their medical infrastructures over-run by the new disease, largely because of inadequate prior planning at the Federal level, and some states still have essentially no response policy. There are many individuals who don’t believe any emergency measures are called for and are resisting the measures now in place. People are dying who didn’t have to.

The fact that all this woe is caused by the same sort of political and psychological woes that have delayed climate action is no proof that such woes are going to evaporate any time soon. As some writers have pointed out, large-scale disaster is hard to deal with, and it’s likely to stay that way.

Indeed, environmental issues, including climate change, are usually seen as secondary, even by many environmentalists, fights that can and should be suspected in the face of real emergencies. And the pandemic has already derailed the process of climate-related diplomacy, since traveling and meeting together is not an option right now (why delegates can’t teleconference I don’t understand). The EPA has suspended enforcement of environmental regulations during the outbreak.

While You Were Busy….

A photo of a tornado in the distance above a flat, grassy prairie with fences but no buildings. The counds are mostly black but it appears to be daytime. The tornado is thin and vertical, not bending.

Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

In the meantime, what is happening with climate change while the rest of us have our attention focused elsewhere?  Here’s a quick sampling:

  • The Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era auto-pollution rules.
  • The Great Barrier Reef suffered widespread bleaching this summer (remember, it’s in the southern hemisphere, where it is autumn right now). Coral organisms derive both their color and their food from symbiotic algae. Exposure to too much warm water for too long cause them to lose their algae and turn white–bleached coral is not dead, but it will die if it bleaches too severely or too often. This summer’s bleaching event is part of an ongoing trend of increasing bleaching that could soon become an annual occurrence.
  • 150 people have died in in Brazil in record-breaking severe weather events since New Years alone. While people die in floods in Brazil every year, this is excessive, and attributed to climate change by many experts.
  • An internet search on “tornadoes 2020” yields multiple stories from this past week about tornadoes in Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama. While March tornadoes are not unprecedented, they are unusual; the normal peak for these storms is April and May. The Gulf of Mexico is currently about three degrees above normal, one of those small numbers that actually refers to a huge increase in the amount of energy in the water–and unusually warm water in the Gulf is associated with more severe storms, including tornadoes. If the anomaly persists into hurricane season, it could make Gulf hurricanes more severe as well. And the warmer the planet gets, the more likely warm pools of water in the Gulf become.
  • Florida is experiencing a record-breaking hot, dry spring, creating serious wildfire danger. Spring is usually Florida’s driest season, but this year is far beyond the usual.
  • A huge wildfire in China’s Sichuan Provence has just killed 19 people. 1,200 people have been evacuated and thousands of firefighters and rescue workers have pulled in to the region. I have not been able to find out whether large fires are common in Sichuan, but fires are more common in many parts of the world with climate change.

And on and on.


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Gone with the….

Wind has been in the news lately.

Cyclone Winston  became a named storm on February 10th and then spent 12 days blowing around the South Pacific–literally, the storm track curved back on itself and made a big loop, something I personally hadn’t known was possible. It crossed over Fiji as a Category 5 storm, killed 21 people, and literally leveled whole communities–a kind of destruction more typical of powerful tornadoes. At one point, the storm packed sustained winds of at least 186 mph. That’s the most powerful storm ever measured in the southern hemisphere.

Then, on February 23rd and 24th, a swarm of tornadoes swept through the United States, killing at least three and injuring many more. The storms (though not the tornadoes) actually passed over my area, giving us high, gusting winds and thunder. In February.

Of course, some kind of extreme weather probably occurs somewhere on the planet every day. It’s a big planet, after all. But these are both extreme extremes–Cyclone Winston was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever measured. And the tornado outbreak was in February. And they both relate to climate change–although, so do all other weather events, extreme or otherwise, since the climate changes on the just and unjust alike. Still, it’s interesting to look at the actual connections.

First, Winston. As I’ve written before, tropical cyclones with sustained winds of 75 mph or more are called different things in different ocean basins and different basins also have different storm seasons, and different storm behavior. In the North Atlantic, these storms are called Hurricanes. Winston was called a cyclone because it existed in the South Pacific where it is now late summer. So if it seems like we’ve heard about the “world’s most powerful storm” rather often recently, that’s in part due to the fact that we’ve had multiple basins turning up extraordinary storms, not multiple records being set and broken in just a few months. Still, we do seem to be seeing a lot of big storms lately.

As I’ve written before also, it is hard to tell for sure if tropical cyclones have been getting worse because we only have a few decades of quality data–and the way meteorologists study these storms vary from one ocean basin to another, too, which means that much of the data we do have cannot be pooled. We know that climate change should be making tropical cyclones stronger, more frequent, or possibly both, because the new climate involves warmer water and more humid air, both of which are what makes tropical cyclones happen–we just can’t actually see the changes yet because of the data problem.

But Winston was actually the result of multiple atmospheric cycles working together. Tom Yulsman write a clear and interesting article explaining these cycles. You can find his article here. To summarize, both global warming and El Niño were involved in the unusually warm water that fed the storm while an even shorter cycle, the Madden-Julian Oscillation, that changes over just weeks, made the atmosphere more stormy at just the right time. Day-to-day weather changes then steered the storm through its bizarre circular track and right over Fiji.

So the simple answer is that yes, while we don’t have the data to confirm it, we can be pretty sure that these record-breaking storms have some degree of extra edge due to climate change–and at the same time, other patterns also influence the situation.

Meanwhile, Cyclone Winston exemplifies another pattern–no matter how strong or weak a storm is, it’s going to be worse for impoverished people. Wealthy people can afford to rebuild and wealthy countries can afford to provide extensive aid. Many of those in Fiji can access neither wealth nor extensive aid–they are literally asking for help from the world. And because Fiji is very small and very far away from many of my readers’ countries, it’s all too easy to forget about them.  Please help if you can and spread the word.

As to tornadoes, again we have a serious problem with a lack of quality data. It’s hard to tell whether there are more tornadoes than there used to be when until recently there was no way to tell a tornado had happened unless somebody was there to see it. But recently some researchers have teased out a changing pattern. Apparently, the number of days per year that have tornadoes on average are stead or dropping, but the number of tornadoes per outbreak is going up. That is in keeping with the warmer, more humid air, which should make storms more powerful, and a simultaneous decrease in wind shear, also a result of global warming, which makes tornadoes less likely. So, fewer days when tornadoes can form, but on those few days, the storms are worse.

But February?

Tornado swarms in February are rare but hardly unheard of. But what some writers are saying–that the atmosphere is behaving “as though it were May“–is very striking. It’s an acknowledgement that this past week’s storm is part of a pattern that we usually don’t see and it is directly related to warmth. Specifically, the Gulf of Mexico grew unusually warm and did indeed create a kind of weather more typical of a warmer month. Given that the world is warming, these storms are a bad sign of things to come.


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.