The Climate in Emergency

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


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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?

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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.


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Your Tuesday Update: Hurricane Alex

Hello, all! Welcome to your Tuesday update! Did you notice the hurricane?

Yes, there was a hurricane out in the Atlantic last week. While there are parts of the world that get tropical cyclones any time of year, the Atlantic isn’t one of them. Typically, the season runs from June to November, with storms at the beginning and end of that season being rare. For a hurricane to form, the water underneath must usually be at least 80° F., something we rarely see in January. Nevertheless.

Alex formed as an extra-tropical storm near the Bahamas, crossed the Atlantic, and then moved over warm water near the Azores, developed tropical organization and eventually grew into a strong Category 1 storm before crossing the Atlantic again, becoming extra-topical, and ending up over the Canadian Maritimes where it sucked cold air south and gave the Eastern US a taste of actual winter for a change.

So, if anybody makes a “where is global warming” joke this week over the cold temps, you can explain that it’s cold because of a January hurricane.

Does Alex really have anything to do with climate change? As usual, that is the wrong question and the right question–are out-of-season tropical cyclones becoming more common–is impossible to answer because, as usual, there is no baseline data. Alex was only the third January hurricane ever recorded, but we really haven’t been recording hurricanes very long and until recently a lot of storms that never made landfall must simply have been missed. With no baseline, we can’t tell if anything has changed. And for events that only happen a few times a century anyway, it would take a long time for a new signal to show itself even if we did have a baseline.

So, all we can really say is that January hurricanes are rare and we just had one.

But it just seems weird.

 


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Looking Back

It’s time for our New Year retrospective again–here is a summary of the climate-related stories that caught my attention in 2015. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive or representative list. It’s in no particular order.

Looking over this list, I feel no particular optimism, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. I have a cold at the moment, which might make it difficult to remain up-beat.

Extreme Weather

The American Northeast became ridiculously snowy (although not unusually cold). California’s drought continued, as did drought in places like Texas and, for part of the summer, the Eastern states of the US. All of those places except California have also seen catastrophic flooding. Wildfires swept the Northwest of the US, from Oregon to Alaska and in to Western Canada. Several firefighters died. The planet as a whole set another heat record, and many new local heat records were set as well—few if any cold records. We saw some insanely powerful hurricanes and typhoons as well, all in the Pacific. Some of this wild weather is clearly due to our being in an El Nino, but climate change may play a role as well. It’s not either/or.

Fossil Fuels

The public process by which new offshore areas, including parts of the East Coast, could be opened to oil exploration has begun.

After years of largely symbolic political maneuvering, President Obama finally said No to the Keystone Pipeline.

A number of oil trains crashed. Same as last year. I hate that those two statements go together.

Shell Oil pulled out of its attempt to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska—which looks like a victory, but it is likely to ramp up pressure to be allowed to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge instead.

Electoral Politics

The US Presidential campaign is now well underway. And while the Democratic candidates at least are all climate-sane, the media has not been treating that aspect of their campaigns as important. I’ve been covering this issue because we have to win this next election, “we” being the climate sane, and the Democrats look like the vehicle to do it. This blog is neutral on all other issues.

ExxonMobile

We have learned that the energy giant knew about global warming decades ago, despite its more recent denialist rhetoric. Given that I knew about global warming decades ago, too, and I was a child whose father simply read a lot, I don’t see how this is a surprise. Still, there have been called to prosecute the company for fraud and I support those calls.

Paris Accord

The world’s leaders got together and decided that destroying the world would be a bad idea. Ahead of the summit, we in the US organized a series of demonstrations in support of a strong climate agreement and nobody noticed. I sound cynical and facetious. Actually, I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris climate accord. I am only cynical, at present, about the American political process necessary for meaningful action on the subject.

The Pope’s Letter

Pope Francis released an official open letter to his Church (called an encyclical) quite correctly describing climate change as a serious problem with a moral dimension.

Jellyfish Blooms

For the second year in a row, large numbers of jellies were seen in Maine waters, suggesting a deep ecological imbalance that is possibly climate-related—except nobody knows for sure, because we have no baseline data on jellyfish populations.

Syrian Refugees

Syria has blown up in all sorts of horrible, awful ways, from a massive refugee crisis to the formation of a really scary international terrorist organization that likes to behead men and sell girls as sex slaves in the name of God. And yes, climate could have played a role. These stories go back before this year, but it was in 2015 that they became dominant in American news (finally).


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Your Tuesday Update on Wednesday: For a Little Boy

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, but he’s getting old enough now that I figured the piece was due for  a major re-write. So, here it is, edited for length and clarity, and with a new ending. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom.

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Peidmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college. Or, he might prefer the shifting flights of birds, since many migrants head south based on conditions in Canada, and Canada will warm faster yet. Should be interesting.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

My nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He’s got friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. It’s sad.

My nephew lives long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts rework the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity pulls away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters befall him, the worst-case scenarios do not play out, but plenty of disasters do happen to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can.

But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

——————–

I wrote the above fantasy several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and does indeed share his farm with chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think he knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.


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Your Tuesday Update: Windy Fudge

NRP just ran a story on why Hurricane Patricia can’t be blamed on climate changebecause it is just one event and single events can’t be definitively pinned on a trend.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that before. And it’s entirely correct. Yes, this record-breaking storm is clearly related to a powerful El Niño, and no, we don’t know what the relationship between El Niño and climate change is. I’ve addressed all of that before, and probably so has every other climate change writer on the planet.

But that isn’t what people mean when they ask if this is climate change.

They’re not asking for a lecture about the difference between climate and weather or the definition of “trend” or any of that, they’re asking is climate change real? and is this the sort of thing we can expect more of? And the answer to both of those questions is unequivocally YES.

No, we don’t know if there has been a statistically significant change in hurricane behavior yet because we have no good baseline data to compare against. So while we can say Patricia was startling, we can’t really get a handle on how unusual the storm was. It had the highest winds of any storm measured, but we haven’t been measuring storms very well for very long. Yes, El Niño is a complicating factor. It’s important for anyone interested in seriously discussing climate change to understand these details so that we won’t be caught hanging when some climate denier twists them up for use as semi-true window-dressing for propaganda.

But all of that is a footnote to the story. The story is that unusually warm water produces unusually powerful hurricanes. Global warming includes the waters of the globe. This is what climate change looks like, among other things–monster hurricanes.

No single events will ever be pinnable to any trend because trends are only visible in multiple events. That isn’t going to change. It isn’t news. So, to NPR and every other journalist working on the topic, please stop misframing public questions in a way that allows you to answer “no” when the true answer to the real question is “yes.”


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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.