The Climate in Emergency

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


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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: At Least the Rotation Will Be.

I dreamed last night.

I dreamed that my mother hand rented a lovely house in which to throw a party for the whole family and then some. It was larger than her home, though with a smaller yard, with a creek running right out back. My sister was there, and some girls I went to school with, and a little baby who so wanted to examine the ivy on the wall, so I lefted her up and she grabbed  some ivy at stuffed it in her mouth. I pulled it out again, and when some busy-body told the baby “you must never play with plants, it’s too dangerous, play inside,” I said no, you go ahead and play with plants. You go ahead and grow up to be a geek, like me.

I dreamed.

I dreamed that someone told me my dog, Una, had gotten away and they’d had to leave her at the shopping center. I went outside to look for her, but the park was full of extremely long cows. I looked out the back door and saw that it had begun to rain. I hoped I’d get to see the moment that the creek began to rise. I’ve always loved beginnings.

I dreamed.

The creek expanded to fill its banks brown and muddy, and it kept on coming. I wondered if we would be flooded. I looked around, thinking how to prepare, then realized the creek was indeed flooding in, seeping slowly under the doors. I ran around picking up small objects that might float, cleaning up trash, trying to warn the others at the party, get them to help, but no one could hear me. No one was listening.

I dreamed.

Because no one was listening, I could no longer speak. I’d lost the self-confidence to even try to make myself heard. The party continued around me and I stood at the sink, whimpering a little, hoping someone would notice and care, but no one did, and I wasn’t even sure anymore if I wanted them to. They’d yell at me for whimpering, for being so pathetic, so needy. I’ve always been such a bother to everyone.

I dreamed.

I dreamed that the recollection of my dog gave me back my voice, though not much else. My dog, Una, was out in that storm somewhere, perhaps lost. I had to find her, and I had to drive, because she was so very far away, and the storm was so violent. I had no car. I’d come with my mother. I asked if I could drive hers, but she said I could not, something about it being a rental and the insurance. Could I ask my dad? Sudden;y I wasn’t even sure I could drive, cars had become so complicated, all manual transmissions, all weird, convoluted controls. I needed a car, I needed to go save my dog, but no one would help me, and no one would hear me about the flood slowly seeping across the living room floor.

I awoke.

I awoke and tried to remind myself I had no reason to be so anxious, I didn’t need to go find Una, she wasn’t missing. She was dead. She died almost a year ago. And my sister died just over a year ago. And while the party wasn’t exactly happening, the tornado warning that had woken me was real.

Isaias had arrived.

The “I” Storm

A photo of dark, roiling storm cloids. The view is through a window and there are raindrops on the glass.

Photo by Valentin Müller on Unsplash

For those who either don’t know or who are reading this post long after the fact and have forgotten, Isaias is the name of a tropical cyclone that made landfall last night as a Category 1 hurricane, tracked overland, weakened to a strong tropical storm, and moved more or less right over top of me–the eye passed just to our west, moving up the Chesapeake Bay and making a second landfall near where my in-laws live, and then hitting my mother right…about….now.

Of course, these storms are pretty big, so the entire experience lasts eight hours or so, no matter where the eye happens to be.

The name, Isaias, is Spanish, and it got attached to this storm in recognition that Spanish speakers get his by tropical cyclones, too. American English speakers fall all over it, of course, not because we find it difficult to pronounce (“ees-ah-EE-ahs”) but because we find it difficult and intimidating to read. The same thing happens to my last name, which is also easy to pronounce yet trips everybody up (“uh-LAN-thus”). Anyway, my husband started calling it the I-Storm. It’s a good epithet, for a storm that has an eye.

What We Experienced

We’re all alright now, and the sun is shining, but things were pretty hairy there, for a while. We got all our hatches battened down last night and went to bed, knowing the storm would move in as we slept. I expected to wake to the sound of rain. We did not. Instead we woke around five-thirty to the tone of the tornado warning of my husband’s pager (he’s a firefighter). The day had not yet dawned, and the air was utterly still, utterly silent, in a way that you’d think would be comforting at such times but isn’t.

The warning was for the southern part of our county, though, not us. I persuaded our second cat to come inside

An image of an arm of a white person in an otherwise dark space. Only the arm is visible, and it looks to be reaching plaintively.

Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

while Chris checked the radar on his phone, and we went back to sleep. The wind started to pick up.

When the tornado warning woke us up the second time, day had come. We were busy discussing whether this one a  threat to us when Chris’ mother called to tell us to take shelter. We obeyed her and gathered both dogs, both cats (did I mention one of our cats hates the dogs?) and my laptop into the guest bathroom and huddled there listening in to the county’s emergency response communications as a tornado touched down in a nearby town, setting off electrical fires. We later learned that was the fourth confirmed tornado in our region from Isaias. There would be two more, to our north.

When the warning expired at eight, we left the bathroom and went about our morning. Small branches broke off our trees and rattled on the roof. Martha  meowed to go outside and I explained to her why she should not. She meowed again and again. Percy curled up in a safe little nest under a table. He’d been panting from fear in the bathroom. Reilly lay on the floor looking worried. He doesn’t like odd noises. Kizzy slept. Kizzy could sleep through a hurricane. Chris turned on the local weather report–broadcasting in crisis-mode, of course–so he could stay abreast of the latest developments, while I puttered around the kitchen, frustrated to the depths of my geeky soul that the reception kept cutting out whenever they started explaining something sciency.

As the eye came up even with us and the maps on TV showed the storm clouds clearing off, the wind picked up, launching a series of gusts that leaned our trees over harder than I’ve ever seen them. Bigger-sounding branches fell nearby, and distant trees made odd noises. For the first time since we’d left the bathroom, I got scared. The weather people had told us to take this storm seriously, that although it would hit us as only a tropical storm, it would not be like the tropical storms we were used to–they normally pass us to our east, but this one passing to our west would put us on the “dirty side” and would be a whole different ball-game. The swarm of tornadoes we got was certainly new for us, but it was predicted, but these late big gusts were a surprise–I don’t know the numbers on those gusts, but I can tell you that nether Irene nor Sandy did anything comparable in our neck of the woods. Apparently, nearby Ocean City was getting some heavy winds, too, sustaining heavy damage. The weather people admitted surprise–apparently it was something called a “sting jet” that doesn’t usually happen in tropical systems.

Go figure.

By early afternoon though, the wind had fallen off to a gentle bluster, and the sun had come out. It’s a gorgeous day, now.

What the Weather People Said

A few weeks ago, I wrote, among other things, that it’s important to notice the experts we rely on–and to notice them as individuals. I wrote about huddling in the bathroom during a tornado warning, anxiously watching for updates by an on-air meteorologist, and later not remembering who that was. That seemed wrong to me. Accordingly, this time I paid attention.

While huddling in the bathroom we were not watching a person, merely the work of one or more persons, as warning boxes appeared and disappeared on the online map. However, afterwards, watching TV, those were people, people who looked distinctly worried, people standing closer to the path of the eye than we were, people whose families may have been huddled in a guest bathroom at that moment, for all I know. Of course, they were all very professional about it.

Of course, one of them was Dan Satterfield, whom I have interviewed, and noticing a person I have interacted with, however briefly, comes naturally, but I also payed attention to his colleagues on-air and enjoyed noticing them work as a team–the complexity they all had to be keeping track of, monitoring various streams of information while simultaneously performing live on TV, was impressive (lots of weather teams do the same, of course; it’s still impressive). All of them had that focused, high-energy manner of people on deck in a storm real or metaphorical, and I imagine they were all having a great deal of fun, the sort of fun you don’t really notice until after the fact, in retrospect, when you know that nobody died on your watch after all.

(Isaias did kill at least one person in the Carolinas and another in New York, but I have not yet heard whether there were any fatalities in WBOC’s listening area)

Just before we finally lost patience with the terrible reception–a byproduct of the storm, of course–they said that something about Isaias was weird besides its name. I could not hear what the weird thing was. Maybe it was the sting jet. Maybe it was something else, or the sting jet and something else together. I keep checking social media, hoping for some elaboration there, but there has been nothing. I suspect they’re all at home now, asleep.

It’s been a long, difficult day.

Climate Change?

Of course I’m not just telling you about my day. This here is a climate story. I am not yet aware of any particular climate connection for Isaias, some way that it is better than your average tropical cyclone for telling the climate story–although the aforementioned “weirdness” may turn out to be relevant.

All tropical cyclones are pretty good climate stories, but I’ve told those stories already, here, here, here, and here.

Mr. Satterfield said, in our interview, that “climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.” Some of our climate expectations involve tropical cyclones, and today we got one. It’s worth noticing.

But I was also very struck, and not for the first time, by the urge to watch reality unfold on television. Yes, there was a practical element to wanting to watch the coverage, and yes, watching the team explain things would have been fun had I gotten better reception, but there is also a sense of being more connected, more in control, if one is getting the latest news on a thing. There is even some element whereby reality gets realer if seen on TV.

How much of reality gets on TV?

Mr. Satterfield mentioned climate change on social media relative to Isaias–someone had asked about the storm surge, and he responded by saying it wouldn’t be bad, but worse than it otherwise would have been without climate change. He’s good at calling a spade a spade, when the subject of digging comes up. But otherwise I haven’t seen the topic come up much of late. although it’s clearly relevant to both storms and to COVID-19.

What I’d like to see is a BIG climate march, the kind we’ve had before, the kind that gets LOTS of media attention, the kind that reminds us and our elected leaders that we care. Why isn’t this happening? Why are big climate marches no longer being organized in the US? For years there have been only small, local events that don’t get the coverage, or bigger, dramatic events that involve activists getting arrested–and therefore only draw those people comfortable getting arrested. Why? We need to get the revolution back on television.

Because as easy as it is to mock the televising impulse, and as genuinely questionable it sometimes is, societal self-reflection is a legitimate function of television. It’s part of how we interpret the world to ourselves.

Think of how it actually feels to watch, say, televised storm coverage?

It’s practically useful, of course. Climate change is an emergency, and just as in any emergency it’s helpful to have someone on TV explaining the scope of the problem and how and when to respond. But it’s also comforting to be told you’re not alone–it’s not just the weather people and the reporters, it’s the people they tell us about, the other people out there also getting wet, also getting blown around, also cowering in their guest bathrooms. It’s comforting to be told yes, you’re right, this is big. It’s comforting to be told you’re not a fool to be afraid.

You’re not a fool to want to take action, and there are other people taking this seriously, too.

We need to get the revolution back on television, because sometimes I feel like the water is rising, something or someone important is missing and needs help, and no one is listening to me.

 


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But It’s May!

A satellite image of a tropical cyclone making lanfall on a large gray-brown landmass. This is not Tropical Storm Arthur specifically.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

So, there’s a tropical storm out in the Atlantic.

Or, at least there was one recently; the storm named Arthur (not to be confused with other storms named Arthur in recent years). Although Arthur itself was not especially destructive and never achieved hurricane status, it’s remarkable in that hurricane season won’t actually start for another week and a half. It’s May, a time of year when the Atlantic Ocean is supposedly too cold still to feed this kind of storm.

So, this here is a slam-dunk bit of evidence of climate change, right?

Well, it is and it isn’t.

Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season

(Yes, I titled this section with the name of a Jimmy Buffet song. You can go hear the song here)

Six years ago, I wrote a post on hurricanes and climate change that did a good job of explaining certain basics. Otherwise unattributed quotes come from that post.

Defining Terms

“Hurricane” technically refers to only one subset of a whole category of storms that share the same structure.

Tropical cyclone” is the generic term that covers tropical storms, hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones. All these storms have a distinct eye and draw their energy from the evaporation of water, rather than from temperature differences between adjacent air masses as extra-tropical cyclones do.

“Tropical storm” refers to a tropical cyclone with sustained winds of anywhere from 39 MPH to 74 MPH. Once a storm intensifies to 75 MPH or beyond, it is called a typhoon in the Northwest Pacific, a cyclone in the South Pacific or the Indian Ocean, and a hurricane everywhere else. I have not found any explanation for this diversity of names for the same kind of storm. Perhaps it is a relic from a time before we knew they were all the same.

So what we normally call the hurricane season should be called the tropical cyclone season–after all, Arthur wasn’t a hurricane, but its formation outside of the season still attracts attention.

Each storm basin has its own season. In the North Atlantic, the season officially runs from June 1st to November 30th, but tropical cyclones outside of those dates in other parts of the world aren’t necessarily remarkable.

Introducing Arthur

A person with long hair and a striped black-and-white shirt stands facing away from the camera and looking at dramatic, dark, roiling stormclouds. In the distance is an odd, pinkish area that might be a curtain of rain.

Photo by Shashank Sahay on Unsplash

On May 16th, 2020, a large, multi-day rainstorm in the Florida Strait was recognized as a tropical depression, meaning it had an eye and drew its energy  from the evaporation of water. It was thus the first tropical cyclone of the 2020 North Atlantic season. A few hours later, its sustained winds topped 39 MPH, making it a tropical storm. It was given the name Arthur–every tropical storm found in the North Atlantic gets a name from an alphabetized list of alternating male and female names, so the first storm of this year would have been named Arthur no matter when it occurred. Each list gets re-used every six years (indeed, I remember being rained on by the last Arthur), although the names of particularly notable storms are retired. There will never be another Katrina, for example.

This year’s Arthur moved north as its winds intensified to around 50 mph. It did not make landfall but brushed the Outer Banks before heading further out to sea and then, oddly, turning south towards Bermuda. On May 19th, the storm’s designation was changed to “post-tropical cyclone,” as it was no longer gaining strength from evaporating water. However, a storm does not need to be tropical or dangerous, and Arthur’s story is not necessarily over yet, as of this writing.

Unseasonable Storms

Arthur is not the first North Atlantic tropical cyclone to occur in May. In fact, tropical cyclones can form in the Atlantic any month of the year–and have. Hurricane season is not a law of physics but rather a rule of thumb; meteorologists, government officials, tourist agents, and anyone else who needs to think about the likelihood of hurricanes know it’s best to keep an eye out from June through the end of November. The occasional unseasonal storm doesn’t change the pattern, especially since out-of-season storms are usually weak and rarely make landfall.

But this is the sixth year in a row that the first named storm has occurred before June 1st.

2016 was particularly odd, as it ha two pre-season named storms, the first an actual January hurricane. But over the past 17 years, nine have had at least one pre-season North Atlantic tropical cyclone.

We’re at the point where meteorologists are starting to talk seriously about extending the season, though the change hasn’t been formally proposed, yet. The arguments for and against are interesting in several different ways.

The argument for is fairly clear; if tropical cyclones often form in May, then shouldn’t the season start in May?

The arguments against are several:

  • We don’t know yet that May storms are actually typical. We could have a few unusual years in a row by chance, in which case we could A close-up of lots of people wading through calf-deep water. Only their legs are visible. They're wearing brightly-colored waterproof leg coverings.next have a decade or so of late first storms. In that case, an earlier start to the official season will be both silly and confusing.
  • It’s possible that May storms are typical, and have always been typical, we just didn’t notice most of them until we started tracking storms using satellites. The early storms we see these days tend to be weak and of short duration, and they don’t often make landfall, meaning that there could have been lots of similar May and even April storms in the past that nobody knew about.  The point of having a hurricane season has never been to include all months when tropical cyclones can happen–nobody is proposing extending the season to include January and December. The point is to include the months when these storms are likely to become problems. Maybe May storms aren’t usually problems.
  • If we changed the hurricane season, someone might think climate change is real.

More on that last point shortly.

Climate Politics?

In an article about Tropical Storm Arthur and other early storms, the Florida Sun Sentinel recently quoted a meteorologist as saying he could understand not wanting to change the season “because you’d suddenly get all these existential political arguments about oh they’re just doing that because of climate change or something.”

A Closer Look at Cons

At first glance, that quote about not changing hurricane season dates really does sound climate-denial-ish, and in fact I don’t know that it isn’t meant that way. I can believe there are those who don’t want to change the season because they don’t want to appear to believe in climate change. But I don’t know that this meteorologist meant it that way–and that’s why I’m not including his name here. You can find his name in two seconds by clicking on the link to the article, but it’s possible the article takes his words out of context.

Climate change is real, but it’s difficult to demonstrate that fact using hurricane data alone.

Tropical cyclone records are being studied, but the problem is the data are “noisy.” That is, there are so many variations that are not related to the greenhouse effect that it’s hard to spot the variations that are….Some of the noise in tropical cyclone data is the natural variability in storminess from year to year. Normally scientists can tune out such noise by looking at a large enough dataset. The basic procedure is to let random variations cancel themselves out–years with a lot of hurricanes are balanced by years with very few, if you look at enough years. What variation doesn’t get cancelled out is actually the climate changing.

But with tropical cyclones that standard procedure doesn’t work very well because there are problems with the data:

  • We don’t have good records of tropical cyclones before the Industrial Revolution. Scientists only started realizing that some large storms are spirals around 1820. Modern weather forecasting based on networks of weather stations didn’t begin until the 1860’s and most of the technology used to monitor hurricanes was only invented in the 20th century.  It’s hard to do a before-and-after comparison if you have no “before” shot.
  • The United States has been conducting aerial reconnaissance on hurricanes for decades, but since similar flights into typhoons have stopped, the data on storms in different parts of the world are not directly comparable.  That makes it hard to really get a global picture.
  • A lot of research on tropical cyclones is done by satellite, especially in the Pacific, but satellites are a relatively new technology so, again, we don’t have a good picture of how storms change over time.
  • Which information we get about which storm is a little random. For example, getting a measurement of a storm’s highest winds at landfall depends on getting the right instrumentation into the right part of the storm at the right time. For obvious reasons, that doesn’t always happen.
  • The conventions on how researchers analyze data and how they make estimates can change, subtly but definitely changing the numbers they record.

Scientists can and do work around these limitations, but they can’t make the limitations vanish.

And while it seems like a no-brainer that a warmer world will have more tropical cyclones, hot water is not the only requirement for storm formation; certain atmospheric conditions are also necessary, and some models show the frequency of these conditions–and thus the frequency of tropical cyclones–holding steady or even decreasing.

So while climate change is real, it’s far from clear that increased pre-season storm activity is related–or even happening at all. Whatever’s happening with early tropical storms might have nothing to do with climate change and much more to do with figuring out which rules-of-thumb are useful for disaster preparedness. And it’s easy to imagine even scientists who fully support climate action being irritated by having their work misinterpreted by climate activists.

But….

A photo of a hurricane taken from low Earth orbit, probably from the International Space Station. The image looks as though it were upside-down, because the Earth occupies the upper part of the image while the blackness of space is visible at the bottom. Most of the image is dominated by the Earth, and the storm covers all of the visible part of the Earth, a large enough view that the curve of the Earth is noticeable. The eye is very large and well-defined. The storm must be enormous and very powerful. This is not Tropical Storm Arthur, either, it's just an impressive picture of a tropical cyclone.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

But regardless of what that one un-named meteorologist meant when quoted by the Sun-Sentinel, some of the articles I’ve been finding on early tropical cyclones seem a bit disingenuous, being focused on the idea that the links between climate change and tropical cyclones is unclear and anyway these storms are usually quite weak and barely tropical in structure at all.

“Weak” and “barely tropical” don’t actually mean much, for one thing.

Weak, in a tropical cyclone, generally means it doesn’t have very high maximum sustained wind speeds. Arthur’s winds, for example, never exceeded 74 MPH, so it never counted as a hurricane. But wind speed is not as important as we might assume; most of the death and destruction in these storms is caused by flooding, not by wind. So the fact that pre-season storms rarely develop windspeeds over 74 MPH doesn’t tell us much. I want to know how big they are, how much rain they carry, and how slowly they move–all information not provided by most reports. Even tropical characteristics are not necessary for a storm to be dangerous. Nor’easters, which are non-tropical cyclones, can be as destructive as hurricanes because they can cause as much flooding, and their more moderate winds can cover a very large area. So I don’t know what “barely tropical” means, but it’s not comforting.

Finally, the connection between tropical cyclones and climate change is no longer as mysterious as it seemed when I wrote my posts on the subject back in 2014. Yes, the data of the past are still noisy, but new research methods are starting to give us a much clearer picture, and the picture isn’t pretty. No, we still don’t know whether early-season storms are, in general, a sign of climate change, but Arthur particularly developed in unusually warm water. That is, the storm didn’t occur in typical-May conditions that we just didn’t know could produce tropical cyclones, nor was it the result of unusual atmospheric conditions that might have occurred irrespective of water temperatures. We had a tropical storm in May because ocean temperatures more closely resembled those of June.

It behooves us to think carefully, to not jump to conclusions, to not assume that a storm in May is a sign of the Apocalypse. But it also behooves us not to ignore the fact that climate change is making the ocean warmer–and it seems that whenever an unusual tropical cyclone occurs, unusually warm water is below it.


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Update on Hurricanes

Some years ago, I wrote that although global warming seems like it should make hurricanes worse, we can’t really say that it has. Until just a few decades ago, if a hurricane happened not to pass over human observers or equipment, we might not know it existed. It’s not that we have no data before that, it’s just not a complete picture. How can we compare “before” and “after” when we don’t have a full “before”? There are other complications, too.

Of course, as I pointed out, all that applies only if “worse” is taken to mean more frequent or with higher wind-speeds. Since the most dangerous part of a hurricane is always its storm-surge, which is unambiguously worsened by sea-level rise, another answer to the question is that yes, global warming does make hurricanes worse and is going to keep doing so as long as the seas keep rising.

In any case, I didn’t expect any of that to change any time soon–but it might have just done so.

The problem of inadequate “before” data is still there, but a team from Stony Brook University has just modeled Hurricane Florence as it would have been without anthropogenic climate change–essentially, they used the models used to forecast hurricane behavior, but altered the model so as to simulate an un-warmed world. Because the same computer system was used to forecast both the real-world hurricane and the counterfactual one, the reliability of the system can be checked simply by comparing the real-world forecast with the actual behavior of Hurricane Florence–the forecast was pretty good, as it turned out.

So, all of you who were under Hurricane Florence? It’s official. Those of you who saw the heaviest rainfall–you saw 50% more of it because of climate change. And if you live on the coast, the storm was about 50 miles wider when it made landfall than it would have been, so at least some of you were hit by a storm surge that would otherwise have passed you by.

Now, when I say “it’s official,” I don’t actually know whether there is any controversy around this approach. I don’t have an inside view of either climatology or meteorology, though I do have friends I may be able to ask. So we may have to wait a while to see how this is received, but so far it seems legit to me.

While we’re discussing new hurricane research, it seems there are two more variables to how “bad” a hurricane can be, and climate change looks to be making them both worse.

One is the speed at which storms travel. The slower a hurricane is moving, the longer it takes to pass over your house and the more hurricane you get. That was part of the problem with Harvey, which simply stayed put over Houston and rained for way too long. A study just published in the journal, Nature suggests that storms are, on average, getting slower, apparently because climate change is causing weakening of the air currents that move hurricanes along.

The other variable is how fast storms intensify. We’re used to tropical systems strengthening gradually over a period of days, so that if a tropical storm (wind speed no greater than 74 mph) is pointed at you and about a day away, you can go ahead and prepare for a tropical storm, or possibly a category 1 hurricane. But occasionally a storm will undergo “rapid intensification” and you can go to bed prepared for that tropical storm and wake up to find a cat 4 bearing down on you. Scary, no?

And while nobody is actually sure yet how rapid intensification works, it does seem to be happening more and more often. A recent computer simulation shows that climate change does indeed result in more of the most severe hurricanes (categories 4 and 5) and does so specifically by making rapid intensification more frequent.

So, there you have it, folks. While I’m sure more research needs to be done (doesn’t it always?) and the picture will get clearer and more sure as we learn more, climate change is making hurricanes worse. That means worse in the future and it means worse already.

So when I say we all need to vote for climate-sane candidates willing to re-instate Paris? This is why.


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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.