Tag Archives: hurricanes

Tardy El Nino finally arrives

A long anticipated El Nino has finally arrived. But for drought-struck California, it’s too little, too late, meteorologists say.

The National Weather Service late last week proclaimed the phenomenon is now in place. It’s a warming of a certain patch of the central Pacific that changes weather patterns worldwide, associated with flooding in some places, droughts elsewhere, a generally warmer globe and fewer Atlantic hurricanes. El Ninos are usually so important that economists even track them because of how they affect commodities.

But this is a weak, weird and late version of El Nino, so don’t expect too many places to feel its effects, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the weather service’s Climate Prediction Center. He said there may be a slight decrease in the number of Atlantic hurricanes this summer if the condition persists, but he also points out that 1992’s devastating Hurricane Andrew occurred during an El Nino summer, so coastal residents shouldn’t let their guard down.

There’s about a 50 to 60 percent chance the El Nino will continue through the summer, NOAA predicts.

Ever since March 2014, the weather service has been saying an El Nino was just around the corner. But it didn’t quite show up until now. Meteorologists said the key patch of the Pacific was warming but they didn’t see the second technical part of its definition – certain changes in the atmosphere. Halpert said he didn’t know why this El Nino didn’t form as forecast, saying “something just didn’t click this year.”

“What we’ve learned from this event is that our definition is very confusing and we need to work on it,” Halpert said.

Last year, some experts were hoping that El Nino would help the southwestern droughts because moderate-to-strong events bring more winter rain and snow to California – even flooding and mudslides during 1998’s strong El Nino. But this El Nino arrives at the end of California’s rainy season and is quite weak, Halpert said.

“This is not the answer for California,” Halpert said.

The U.S. Southeast may see some above average rainfall, which is typical for an El Nino, Halpert said.

This is the first El Nino since spring of 2010.

Allan Clarke, a physical oceanography professor at Florida State University, said as far he’s concerned, El Nino has been around awhile and the weather service didn’t acknowledge it. But he agrees that this doesn’t look like a strong one.

That fits with the pattern the last 10 years, when El Nino’s flip side, a cooling of the central Pacific called La Nina, has been more common. From 2005 to 2014, there have been twice as many months with a La Nina than with El Nino, weather records show. More than half of the time, the world has been in neither.

On the Web…

Climate Prediction Center’s El Nino page: http://1.usa.gov/1jSaUB3

White House releases major climate change assessment

The White House on May 6 released the third U.S. National Climate Assessment, considered the most comprehensive scientific assessment ever generated of climate change and its impacts across every region of America and major sectors of the U.S. economy.

Developed over four years by scientists and technical experts — with information gathered from town hall meetings and public-comment opportunities — the report contains findings underscoring the need for urgent action to combat the threats from climate change, say leading environmentalists.

“The National Climate Assessment drives home both the reality of climate change science and the impacts Americans are experiencing right now,” said Ken Berlin of the Climate Reality Project. “As we pay more for groceries in the midst of record-breaking droughts, or rebuild after increasingly extreme weather events, or foot the health care bill for worsening air quality, it is clear that the cost of carbon pollution is real and growing.”

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “Our leading scientists send a stark message: Climate change is already seriously disrupting our lives, hurting our health and damaging our economy. If we don’t slam the brakes on the carbon pollution driving climate change, we’re dooming ourselves and our children to more intense heat waves, destructive floods and storms, and surging sea levels.”

The assessment includes impacts of climate change in regions across the country:

• Northeast – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and District of Columbia. The assessment says communities in the Northeast “are affected by heat waves, more extreme precipitation events and coastal flooding due to sea level rise and storm surge.”

• Southeast and Caribbean – Virginia, W. Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, S. Carolina, N. Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and the Caribbean Islands: “Decreased water availability, exacerbated by population growth and land-use change, causes increased competition for water in this region. There are also increased risks associated with extreme events such as hurricanes.”

• Midwest – Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin: “The Midwest’s agricultural lands, forests, Great Lakes, industrial activities, and cities are all vulnerable to climate variability and climate change.” “Longer growing seasons and rising carbon dioxide levels increase yields of some crops, although these benefits have already been offset in some instances by occurrence of extreme events such as heat waves, droughts, and floods.”

• Great Plains – Wyoming, N. Dakota, S. Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas: The Great Plains region “experiences multiple climate and weather hazards, including floods, droughts, severe storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and winter storms. In much of the Great Plains, too little precipitation falls to replace that needed by humans, plants and animals. These variable conditions already stress communities and cause billions of dollars in damage. Climate change will add to both stress and costs.” “Rising temperatures lead to increased demand for water and energy and impacts on agricultural practices.”

• Southwest – California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado: “The Southwest is the hottest and driest region in the United States. Climate changes pose challenges for an already parched region that is expected to get hotter and, in its southern half, significantly drier. Increased heat and changes to rain and snowpack will send ripple effects throughout the region… and its critical agriculture sector.” “Drought and increased warming foster wildfires and increased competition for scarce water resources for people and ecosystems.”

• Northwest – Idaho, Oregon, and Washington: “The Northwest’s economy, infrastructure, natural systems, public health, and agriculture sectors all face important climate change related risks. Impacts on infrastructure, natural systems, human health, and economic sectors, combined with issues of social and ecological vulnerability, will unfold quite differently in largely natural areas, like the Cascade Range, than in urban areas like Seattle and Portland or among the region’s many Native American Tribes.” “Changes in the timing of streamflow related to earlier snowmelt reduce the supply of water in summer, causing far-reaching ecological and socioeconomic consequences.”

• Alaska: “Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the United States…The state’s largest industries, energy production, mining, and fishing—are all affected by climate change.” “Rapidly receding summer sea ice, shrinking glaciers, and thawing permafrost cause damage to infrastructure and major changes to ecosystems. Impacts on Alaska Native communities increase.”

• Hawaii and Pacific Islands: The U.S. Pacific Islands region “includes more than 2,000 islands spanning millions of square miles of ocean. Rising air and ocean temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, changing frequencies and intensities of storms and drought, decreasing streamflows, rising sea levels, and changing ocean chemistry will threaten the sustainability of globally important and diverse ecosystems…as well as local communities, livelihoods, and cultures.” “Increasingly constrained freshwater supplies, coupled with increased temperatures, stress both people and ecosystems and decrease food and water security.”

• Coasts: “More than 50 percent of Americans – 164 million people – live in coastal counties, with 1.2 million added each year. …Humans have heavily altered the coastal environment through development, changes in land use, and overexploitation of resources. Now, the changing climate is imposing additional stresses…” “Coastal lifelines, such as water supply infrastructure and evacuation routes are increasingly vulnerable to higher sea levels and storm surges, inland flooding, and other climate-related changes.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, responded early to these findings, saying they underscore “the urgent need to take immediate action to begin reversing the threats from climate change. Now, more than ever, we must renew our commitment to being good stewards of our environment, of the air that we breathe and of the water that we drink.”

The assessment also contains findings on the impacts of climate change on health, economy and more:

• Health: “Climate change will, absent other changes, amplify some of the existing health threats the nation now faces. Certain people and communities are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, the poor and some communities of color.”

• Transportation: “Sea level rise, coupled with storm surge, will continue to increase the risk of major coastal impacts on transportation infrastructure, including both temporary and permanent flooding of airports, ports and harbors, roads, rail lines, tunnels and bridges. Extreme weather events currently disrupt transportation networks in all areas of the country; projections indicate that such disruptions will increase. Climate change impacts will increase the total costs to the nation’s transportation systems and their users, but these impacts can be reduced through rerouting, mode change, and a wide range of adaptive actions.”

• Energy: “Extreme weather events are affecting energy production and delivery facilities, causing supply disruptions of varying lengths and magnitudes and affecting other infrastructure that depends on energy supply. …Higher summer temperatures will increase electricity use, causing higher summer peak loads, while warmer winters will decrease energy demands for heating.”

• Water: “Climate change affects water demand and the ways water is used within and across regions and economic sectors. …Changes in precipitation and runoff, combined with changes in consumption and withdrawal, have reduced surface and groundwater supplies in many areas. These trends are expected to continue, increasing the likelihood of water shortages for many uses. Increasing flooding risk affects human safety and health, property, infrastructure, economies, and ecology in many basins across the United States… “

• Agriculture: “Climate disruptions to agriculture have been increasing and are projected to become more severe over this century. Some areas are already experiencing climate-related disruptions, particularly due to extreme weather events. While some U.S. regions and some types of agricultural production will be relatively resilient to climate change over the next 25 years or so, others will increasingly suffer from stresses due to extreme heat, drought, disease, and heavy downpours.”

• Ecosystems: “The capacity of ecosystems to buffer the impacts of extreme events like fires, floods, and severe storms is being overwhelmed. Climate change impacts on biodiversity are already being observed in alteration of the timing of critical biological events such as spring bud burst, and substantial range shifts of many species. In the longer term, there is an increased risk of species extinction. Events such as droughts, floods, wildfires, and pest outbreaks associated with climate change … are already disrupting ecosystems.”

• Oceans: “Ocean waters are becoming warmer and more acidic, broadly affecting ocean circulation, chemistry, ecosystems, and marine life. More acidic waters inhibit the formation of shells, skeletons and coral reefs. Warmer waters harm coral reefs and alter the distribution, abundance, and productivity of many marine species. The rising temperature and changing chemistry of ocean water combine with other stresses, such as overfishing and coastal and marine pollution, to alter marine-based food production and harm fishing communities… “

“This report is one of the most useful tools climate researchers produce for American policymakers,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, a Union of Concerned Scientists senior climate scientist. “There’s so much science that’s relevant for people right now, whether its public health officials dealing with heat waves or coastal managers dealing with sea-level rise.”

More from the assessment:

• Temperature: “U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3°F to 1.9°F since record keeping began in 1895; most of this increase has occurred since about 1970. The most recent decade was the nation’s warmest on record. Temperatures in the United States are expected to continue to rise.”

• Extreme Weather: “There have been changes in some types of extreme weather events over the last several decades. Heat waves have become more frequent and intense, especially in the West. Cold waves have become less frequent and intense across the nation. There have been regional trends in floods and droughts.”

• Hurricanes: “The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s.”

• Severe Storms: “Winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity since the 1950s, and their tracks have shifted northward over the United States. Other trends in severe storms, including the intensity and frequency of tornadoes, hail, and damaging thunderstorm winds, are uncertain and are being studied intensively.”

• Precipitation: “Average U.S. precipitation has increased since 1900, but some areas have had increases greater than the national average, and some areas have had decreases.’

• Heavy Downpours: “Heavy downpours are increasing nationally, especially over the last three to five decades. Largest increases are in the Midwest and Northeast. Increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are projected for all U.S. regions.”

• Frost-free Season: “The length of the frost-free season has been increasing nationally since the 1980s, with the largest increases occurring in the western United States, affecting ecosystems and agriculture.

• Ice Melt: “Rising temperatures are reducing ice volume and surface extent on land, lakes, and sea. This loss of ice is expected to continue. The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century.”

• Sea Level: “Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100.”

• Ocean Acidification: “The oceans are currently absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually and are becoming more acidic as a result, leading to concerns about intensifying impacts on marine ecosystems.”

“The National Climate Assessment paints a bleak picture, but it is a picture we have seen clearly for many years, and we have to act on it now,” said Trip Van Noppen, President of Earthjustice.

Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said, “Today’s landmark report is a wake-up call that we simply cannot afford to sleep through yet again.”

Brune added, “We applaud the Obama administration for listening to these alarm bells and urge them to continue to take critical, common-sense steps, including the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. We don’t just have an obligation to future generations to take action now — we will seize an enormous opportunity as we do. By leaving dirty fossil fuels in the ground and continuing the transition to clean energy solutions like wind and solar, we can create good American jobs and power homes and businesses nationwide without polluting our air, water, or climate.”

NOAA study links global warming, wild weather events in 2012

A study of a dozen of 2012’s wildest weather events found that man-made global warming increased the likelihood of about half of them, including Superstorm Sandy’s devastating surge and shrinking Arctic sea ice.

The other half – including a record wet British summer and the U.S. drought last year – simply reflected the random freakiness of weather, researchers with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the British meteorological office concluded in a report issued this week.

The scientists conducted thousands of runs of different computer simulations that looked at various factors, such as moisture in the air, atmospheric flow, and sea temperature and level.

The approach represents an evolution in the field. Scientists used to say that individual weather events –a specific hurricane or flood, for example – cannot be attributed to climate change. But recently, researchers have used computer simulations to look at extreme events in a more nuanced way and measure the influence of climate change on their likelihood and magnitude.

This is the second year that NOAA and the British meteorology office have teamed up to look at the greenhouse gas connection to the previous year’s unusual events.

“We’ve got some new evidence that human influence has changed the risk and has changed it enough that we can detect it,” study lead author Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution for the British meteorological office, said at a news conference.

The researchers said climate change had made these 2012 events more likely: U.S. heat waves, Superstorm Sandy flooding, the changing Arctic sea ice, drought in Europe’s Iberian peninsula, and extreme rainfall in Australia and New Zealand.

The 78 international researchers, however, found no global warming connection for the U.S. drought, Europe’s summer extremes, a cold spell in the Netherlands, drought in eastern Kenya and Somalia, floods in northern China and heavy rain in southwestern Japan.

That does not mean that there weren’t climate change factors involved, just that researchers couldn’t find or prove them, said the authors of the 84-page study, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society

All 12 events – chosen in part because of their location and the effect they had on society – would have happened anyway, but their magnitude and likelihood were boosted in some cases by global warming, the researchers said.

The two events where scientists found the biggest climate change connection both hit the United States.

The likelihood of the record July U.S. heat wave that hit the Northeast and north-central region is four times greater now than in preindustrial times because of greenhouse gases, Stanford University climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh found in his analysis.

The kind of surge-related flooding that Superstorm Sandy brought to parts of New York City is about 50 percent more likely than it was in 1950, said study co-author William Sweet, a NOAA oceanographer.

Stott said one of the hardest connections to make is for rainfall. The researchers were able to connect three of the eight instances of too much or too little rain to climate change; the five other instances were attributed to natural variability.

The different authors of the 21 chapters used differing techniques to look at climate change connections, and in some instances came to conflicting and confusing conclusions.

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Judith Curry, who often disagrees with mainstream scientists, said connecting shrinking sea ice to human activity was obvious, but as for Sandy and the rest: “I’m not buying it at all.”

Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, said the study provides “compelling evidence that human-caused change was a factor contributing to the extreme events.”

Gay resort mecca – the Florida Keys – preparing for climate change

Hurricane storm surge can inundate the narrow, low-lying Florida Keys, but that is far from the only water worry for officials.

A tidal gauge operating since before the Civil War has documented a sea level rise of 9 inches in the last century, and officials expect that to double over the next 50 years. So when building a new Stock Island fire station, county authorities went ahead added a foot and a half over federal flood planning directives that the ground floor be built up 9 feet.

Seasonal tidal flooding that was once a rare inconvenience is now so predictable that some businesses at the end of famed Duval Street in Key West – for years a mecca for gay vacationers and LGBT snowbirds – stock sandbags just inside their front doors, ready anytime.

“It’s really easy to see during our spring high tides that the sea level is coming up – for whatever reason – and we have to accommodate for that,” said Johnnie Yongue, the on-site technician at the fire station for Monroe County’s project management department.

While New York City’s mayor was announcing a dramatic multibillion-dollar plan for flood walls and levees to hold back rising water levels there, sea walls like those that encase the Netherlands wouldn’t help much in the Keys, as a lack of coastal barriers isn’t the island chain’s only problem.

“Our base is old coral reef, so it’s full of holes,” says Alison Higgins, the sustainability coordinator for the city of Key West. “You’ve got both the erosion and the fact that (water) just comes up naturally through the holes.”

The Keys’ plans for adapting to rising sea levels sound a lot like the way they prepare for hurricanes: track the incoming disturbance, adjust infrastructure accordingly and communicate potential risks to residents – all, hopefully, without scaring off the tourists who treasure the islands for their fishing, Technicolor sunsets, eccentric characters and a come-as-you-are social scene that has attracted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, U.S. presidents and female impersonators.

In many sea level projections for the coming century, the Keys, Miami and much of southern Florida partially sink beneath potential waves. However, officials are quick to note that the Keys’ beloved resorts and marinas and airport – with a runway averaging just over 2 feet above sea level – aren’t disappearing underwater overnight.

The Keys and three South Florida counties agreed in 2010 to collaborate on a regional plan to adapt to climate change. The first action plan developed under that agreement was published in October and calls for revamped planning policies, more public transportation options, stopping seawater from flowing into freshwater supplies and managing the region’s unique ecosystems so that they can adapt, too.

Before writing the plan, the counties reviewed regional sea level data and projected a rise of 9 to 24 inches in the next 50 years.

“The rate’s doubled. It would be disingenuous and sloppy and irresponsible not to respond to it,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi, who oversees the Keys.

In addition to the regional plan, Monroe County aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and to incorporate future sea level rise projections into infrastructure planning.

“We clearly have the most to lose. If sea-level rise is not curtailed by immediate reductions in greenhouse gases, the Florida Keys may eventually become unlivable,” according to a March draft of the county’s plans. “Planning decisions should take into consideration medium to extreme sea level rise predictions.”

Sea level rise will be considered as projects come up, Gastesi said. Once the Stock Island fire station is completed, next in line for possible elevation or additional drainage are a nearby park, then roads and bridges.

In Key West, city officials are exploring the use of cisterns to catch rainwater for non-potable uses, to avoid taxing mainland freshwater resources.

Key West also wants to switch its municipal vehicle fleet to hybrid or electric vehicles but is concerned that their low-hanging batteries will render them useless in storm-flooded streets. The conundrum illustrates the shift in the worldwide conversation on global warming, from focusing on cutting greenhouse gas emissions to adapting to climate change.

“How do we both want to go greener and mitigate our carbon footprint but at the same time adapt to the fact that the sea water is still coming up on us anyway?” Higgins says.

The Keys are among the cities and coastal areas worldwide building or planning defenses to protect people and infrastructure from more powerful storm surges and other effects of global warming.

New York City has proposed installing removable flood walls, restoring marshes, and flood-proofing homes.

In Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean and one dependent on European and Canadian tourists, inspectors and demolition crews are planning to raze thousands of houses, restaurants, hotels and improvised docks to restore much of the coast to something approaching its natural state. A luxury tourist destination, the Maldives, has built a seawall around its capital, plans to relocate residents from vulnerable islands to better protected ones and is creating new land through land reclamation, expanding existing islands or building new ones.

As the Keys have realized, adaptations to climate change have to be made on a case-by-case basis, says Joe Vietri, director of the Army Corps of Engineering’s National Planning Center of Expertise for Coastal Storm Damage Reduction, which has begun a $20 million study exploring ways to protect the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region from sea level rise and extreme flooding caused by hurricanes.

“The good news is if you start now, you have plenty of time to affect some meaningful change,” Vietri said. “I’m very pleased with the work that a lot of municipalities are doing. They got a major wake-up call during (Superstorm) Sandy.”

The study will weigh the pros and cons of defenses such as sea walls, maintaining barrier islands and marshes and even reducing the number of people living along the coastline.

“You don’t necessarily rip up communities, as a rule, in the U.S. You have to balance these things,” Vietri said. “In some cases it might make sense in areas where there hasn’t been heavy investment in development to limit development in those areas and allow the water to do what it needs to do.”