Tag Archives: storms

Weird weather: Seeing global warming’s fingerprints

A new scientific report finds man-made climate change played some role in two dozen extreme weather events last year but not in a few other weird weather instances around the world.

An annual report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found climate change was a factor in 24 of 30 strange weather events.

They include 11 cases of high heat, as well as unusual winter sunshine in the United Kingdom, Alaskan wildfires and odd “sunny day” flooding in Miami.

The study documented climate change-goosed weather in Alaska, Washington state, the southeastern United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, China, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the western north Pacific cyclone region, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Ethiopia and southern Africa.

“It has to be measureable. It has to be detectable. There has to be evidence for it and that’s what these papers do,” said NOAA scientist Stephanie Herring, co-editor of the report.

In six cases — including cold snaps in the United States and downpours in Nigeria and India — the scientists could not detect climate change’s effects. Other scientists, though, disputed that finding for the cold snap that hit the Northeast.

Herring highlighted the Miami flooding in September 2015. Because of rising sea levels and sinking land, extremely high tides flooded the streets with 22 inches of water.

“This one is just very remarkable because truly, not a cloud in the sky, and these types of tidal nuisance flooding events are clearly become more frequent,” she said.

The report also found an increase in tropical cyclone activity and strength in the western Pacific can be blamed partly on climate change and partly on El Nino, the now-gone natural weather phenomenon. But similar storm strengthening hasn’t increased noticeably around the United States yet, said study co-editor Martin Hoerling, a NOAA scientist.

The report was published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Using accepted scientific techniques, 116 scientists from around the world calculated whether the odds of the extreme weather events were increased by global warming. They based their calculations on observed data, understanding of the physics of the climate and computer simulations — techniques that the National Academy of Sciences said were valid earlier this year.

Columbia University meteorology professor Adam Sobel, who was on the national academy panel but not part of this report, praised the NOAA study but noted it wasn’t comprehensive. It picked only certain but not all weather extremes to study.

For the February 2015 Northeast cold snap, other scientists have connected the polar vortex pushing south to shrinking ice in the Arctic Ocean.

Judah Cohen, seasonal forecasting chief at Atmospheric Environmental Research in Lexington, Massachusetts, said he even predicted the 2015 polar vortex because of the low sea ice. He said the same thing is happening with the bitter cold hitting the U.S. this week.

NOAA’s Hoerling said the research found a connection between the shrinking ice and the polar vortex but didn’t see one causing the other.

On the web

Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

States buying up coastal properties as sea levels rise and storms grow fiercer

As coastal communities are confronted with increasingly costly storms, they are turning to buyouts to create natural buffers along the coast and help protect nearby neighborhoods and businesses from flooding. While some efforts have met resistance — some don’t want to leave their beachfront homes, some fear a declining property tax base — others are showing results.

After suffering heavy losses from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York pledged to spend $400 million in federal and state money on buyouts to create more buffers on the coasts of Long Island and Staten Island. The state has made 525 offers, worth $64 million, out of 750 to 1,000 it had anticipated in 2013.

New Jersey has a similar goal. After Sandy, the state used the same mix of federal grants and state funds to put $300 million into its existing Blue Acres program, and said it expected to clear 1,300 homes from flood-prone areas near rivers and the coastline.

The Garden State has made 700 offers and closed on more than 400 properties.

Although many coastal homeowners were willing to sell, the state found it was unable to buy enough houses — despite offering pre-storm prices for storm-damaged houses — in clusters that would allow for buffers of open space.

Some property owners simply didn’t want to leave, said Bob Considine, of the state’s environmental agency.

That’s not unusual, said Chad Berginnis, director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Beachfront houses serve as valuable rental property that owners don’t want to part with.

The post-Sandy programs in New York and New Jersey, which rely on allotments from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are the largest buyout investments by single states.

Similar programs exist in nearly every state and are run by other federal agencies with state and local partnerships. A program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent almost $900 million since 1998 on buyouts in 48 states. State and local governments organize the buyouts and typically provide 25 percent of the funds, with the rest coming from the federal government. In some cases, the federal share can be higher.

In almost two decades, about $108 million went to North Carolina, according to a Stateline analysis of FEMA data. About 7 percent of flooding-related buyout has gone to coastal buyouts — as opposed to buyouts of properties in river flood plains, with Florida and Mississippi leading the way for coastal buyouts.

A growing threat

Several factors add urgency to state efforts to combat flooding.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which insures 5 million properties nationwide, likely will be unable to repay the $23 billion it owes the U.S. Treasury Department because of heavy losses after Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.

At the same time, coastal communities face a worsening threat. A September study from Columbia University’s Earth Institute concluded that a combination of rising sea levels and larger storms likely will magnify East Coast flooding hundreds of times in the coming decades.

Solutions like beach replacement and seawalls have been losing their appeal as communities find even routine storms will overrun man-made obstacles and wash away millions of dollars in replacement sand, said Berginnis, of the floodplain managers group.

Severe flooding of the Mississippi River in 1993, from Minnesota to Missouri, boosted interest in buyouts and sparked legislation that increased the federal share of buyouts from the previous maximum of 50 percent. Some 12,000 properties were bought out and entire communities were shifted away from the river.

But buyouts in Louisiana found less support after Katrina, and the state ended up spending more on elevating coastal houses than on removing them to create buffers.

Today, buyout programs are often large and statewide, but they can be small and local.

In Lusby, Maryland, along the Chesapeake Bay, for instance, coastal cliffs had eroded so badly by 2013 that Susan Davis’ home was in danger of collapse and a neighbor’s patio was dangling over the bay. County officials told her that they could raise the funds to match the federal dollars needed to buy her home because a mild winter had left a surplus in the storm budget. And they warned she might not get another chance.

Davis said she and her husband wished they could have stayed and fought the cliff erosion by adding rocks at sea level. But they took the buyout and moved to a house on a creek a few miles inland.

“The situation was horrible,” Davis said. “There’s no way we could win. The house would have been worthless because there’s no way to sell it.”

Buyout programs are most cost-effective, and get most local support, when governments develop new housing in safer areas that keeps bought-out residents nearby and minimizes tax losses, according to a study by Columbia Law School.

Hurdles on the coast

Buyout programs along the nation’s coasts are still small and face several obstacles, including high property prices.

Even North Carolina — which is often battered by Atlantic storms and, at $108 million since 1998, has spent more in FEMA grants than any other state — rarely buys coastal property. The bulk of the buyout money has gone to purchase riverfront homes, said Chris Crew, the state hazard mitigation officer. Less than 5 percent has been used to purchase property along the state’s 300 miles of coast.

Many beachfront properties are rentals owned by investors, and the state’s priority is to help with owner-occupied housing. Such houses also typically cost $600,000 or more, and FEMA is unlikely to agree to buy any home above $276,000, Crew said.

“There’s not a $276,000 house on the ocean in Kill Devil Hills,” he said, referring to a popular vacation spot in the state.

Because homeowners often depend on renting out their beachfront properties, coastal houses in the state tend to be raised above typical flood levels.

Generally, Crew said, it’s been more popular — and more cost-effective for North Carolina — to buy out houses along the state’s inland network of creeks and canals that sit just a few feet above sea level.

A boost in New York

New York’s post-Sandy buyout program got a boost when an entire neighborhood, Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, organized and negotiated buyouts last year. Residents found that even ordinary rainstorms were flooding the area, said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Nearby neighborhoods joined in, and Staten Island now accounts for 338 of the 525 offers made by the state.

New York officials offered several reasons for their success, including a focus on buyouts on Staten Island’s eastern shore and Long Island’s Suffolk County, where houses are relatively affordable. The HUD program prohibits home purchases above $700,000, and vacation rentals are usually too profitable to sell.

To combat complaints that the buyouts were hurting property tax rolls, New York added a separate program that uses federal funds to buy storm-damaged homes, tear them down, and resell the land for rebuilding with an agreement that the new homes be storm-resistant. At least 275 such offers have been made.

But the idea of taking homes off the tax rolls, even to create buffers to protect other homes, remains controversial.

When Mastic Beach, a bay-front community on Long Island, heard last year that storm-damaged homes near the shore might be bought out and returned to a natural state, reaction was mixed.

“We’re nervous, because we don’t want to see our tax rolls dwindle down to nothing,” then-Mayor Bill Biondi told reporters. “There’s no reason … to buy out people’s properties and turn them into wasteland,” he said during a meeting about a plan to demolish seven homes.

But this year, the new mayor, Maura Spery, came out in support of the buyouts and of having a buffer.

Spery, who expects the water to claim her house near Narrow Bay in coming decades, said there’s a growing sense the approach buys more time for homeowners like her, and spares her neighbors some of the costs of rescues and road repairs after storms.

“How much should taxpayers have to pay for me to have access to my house if it’s underwater?” she said.

Stateline is a service of The Pew Charitable Trusts


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

Seabirds dying by the hundreds on Pacific Coast

Scientists are trying to figure out what’s behind the deaths of seabirds that have been found by the hundreds along the Pacific Coast since October.

Mass die-offs of the small, white-bellied gray birds known as Cassin’s aucklets have been reported from British Columbia to San Luis Obispo, California.

It’s normal for some seabirds to die during harsh winter conditions, especially during big storms, but the scale of the current die-off is unusual.

“To be this lengthy and geographically widespread, I think is kind of unprecedented,” Phillip Johnson, executive director of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, told the Salem Statesman Journal. “It’s an interesting and somewhat mysterious event.”

The birds appear to be starving to death, so experts don’t believe a toxin is the culprit, said Julia Burco, a wildlife veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But why the birds can’t find food is a mystery.

Researchers say it could be the result of a successful breeding season, leading to too many young birds competing for food. Unusually violent storms might be pushing the birds into areas they’re not used to or preventing them from foraging. Or a warmer, more acidic ocean could be affecting the supply of tiny zooplankton, such as krill, that the birds eat.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin is conducting additional necropsies on dead birds, researchers said.

Robert Ollikainen of Tillamook, Oregon, found 132 dead birds on the beach there, including 126 Cassin’s auklets on Dec. 26. “It was pretty dramatic,” Ollikainen said.

Petitioners: Network news covers weather disasters, ignores climate change

The League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club and Media Matters for America recently delivered more than 72,000 petitions signed by people who want the three major networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – to improve coverage on climate change. 

Media Matters released a study showing that the networks – combined – featured only 12 segments on climate change in all of the last year despite historic extreme weather events – from record-breaking heat waves to droughts to Superstorm Sandy.

“What we’re seeing outside our window should be reflected on our television screens,” said Vanessa Kritzer of the League of Conservation Voters. “We saw historic climate-fueled extreme weather last year, but the major network newscasts barely mentioned climate change at all. It’s clear from the response to this petition that the American people don’t want to see the same old coverage this year.

Maggie Kao of the Sierra Club said, “After a year of record floods, record storms, and record temperatures that affected the lives of millions nationwide, the American people deserve record coverage of the climate disruption fueling this extreme weather – but we’re not getting it. Now, tens of thousands have stood up to demand more accurate, thorough, and frequent coverage of the climate crisis and the solutions it so immediately demands.”

Emilee Pierce at Media Matters said the need for improved coverage is clear: “Just this week, scientists announced that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, its highest level in human history. Unfortunately, ABC World News and NBC Nightly News ignored the story.”

Last year, ABC World News did only one segment highlighting climate change, NBC Nightly News did four and CBS Evening News devoted just seven segments to climate change.

Media Matters noted that the networks, along with CNN, dedicated to 74 segments to flooding in the Midwest last year – only one segment alluded to climate change and none featured a scientist.

Media Matters also observed that while the networks broadcast a total of 12 segments dealing with climate change in 2012, they ran 92 segments on the British royal family.