Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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48.2% of US in Moderate or Worse Drought – 17 Sep 2013 (Thank You, Monsoon!)

According to the Drought Monitor, drought conditions worsened slightly across the entire US compared to three weeks ago. As of September 17, 2013, 48.2% of the contiguous US is experiencing moderate or worse drought (D1-D4), as the early 2010s drought continues month after month.  This value is about 11 percentage points lower than it was in the early spring. The percentage area experiencing extreme to exceptional drought decreased from 14.8% last month to 6.9% last week!  This is more than 10% lower than it was six months ago. The eastern third of the US was wetter than normal during August, which helped keep drought at bay.  The east coast in particular was much wetter than normal and the summer monsoon was much more active this summer compared to 2012, assisted by a persistent upper level blocking pattern.  Instead of Exceptional drought in the West like there was earlier this summer, record rains and flash flooding was the story in September.  While this record-breaking series of events broke the drought in some areas of the West, long-term drought continues to exert its hold over the region.  Compared to earlier this summer, drought increased in area and intensity across the Midwest.

 photo USDrought20130917_zps29a0436a.gif

Figure 1US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions as of September 17th.

If we compare this week’s maps with previous dates (here and here, for example), we can see recent shifts in drought categories.  Compared to mid-August and early September, and despite recent rain events, drought expanded or worsened in the Midwest (Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, and the Dakotas) as well as Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.  On the other hand, alleviation is evident in small places in the West, as the following map shows.

 photo west_drought_monitor_20130917_zpsd2784c0e.png

Figure 2 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Western US as of September 17th.

After worsening during late winter into spring 2013, drought conditions steadied in late summer.  The differences between this map and early September’s is the reduction in area and severity of drought, especially in the southern half of the West.  The area experiencing Exceptional drought decreased significantly over the West and the percent area with no drought increased.  Figure 2 also shows that the percent area with no drought is still lower since the start of the calendar year (24% to 18%).

Here are the current conditions for Colorado:

 photo co_drought_monitor_20130917_zps9d17a4ef.png

Figure 3 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of September 17th.

There is evidence of substantial improvement in Colorado since just a few weeks ago and certainly compared to earlier this year, when drought conditions were their worst.  Compared to the start of the calendar year or even three months ago, the percent area of every drought category decreased significantly.  Only 1.5% of the state currently has Exceptional drought.  Only 84% of the state is even experiencing any drought condition today, a far cry from the 100% that lasted for well over one year.  The links in the first paragraph dealing with last week’s rains combine with this graphic to demonstrate that places that receive one year’s worth of precipitation in one week’s time bust their drought!  Many communities would trade those record rains for a little bit of drought, given the extensive damage to infrastructure and the eight people who, as of this morning, perished in the severe weather event.

Let’s compare Figure 3 to similar Colorado maps from earlier in the year.  First, this is what conditions looked like just two weeks ago:

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Figure 4 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of September 3rd.

The over-active monsoon season helped reduce drought severity from Denver northwest toward the Wyoming border.  I said at the time I hoped that trend continued, but I could never imagine what would happen in the interim.

Here is a look at some of the worst drought conditions Colorado experienced in the past year, from late April 2013:

 photo CO_drought_monitor_20130425_zpsbf9ccb2d.png

Figure 5 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of April 25th.

Conditions were horrible earlier this year.  Reservoir levels declined and crops failed as a result of the higher than normal temperatures and much lower than normal precipitation.  I certainly don’t want to see additional flooding, but I would like to see normal precipitation return to the state and the region.

 photo midwest_drought_monitor_20130917_zpsf91b6be4.png

Figure 6 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in the Midwest as of September 17th.

Drought expanded in the Midwest in the past two weeks: the percent area with no drought decreased significantly from 48% to 43%.  Three months ago, the value was 93%.  This region collected rainfall this month, but the amounts continued to track below average.

 photo south_drought_monitor_20130917_zps76d5a2cf.png

Figure 7 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in the South as of September 17th.

Compared to early summer, drought as a whole expanded across the South in 2013.  Instead of 44% area with no drought three months ago, there is only 16% today.

Policy Context

US drought conditions are more influenced by Pacific and Atlantic sea surface temperature conditions than the global warming observed to date.  Different natural oscillation phases preferentially condition environments for drought.  Droughts in the West tend to occur during the cool phases of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, for instance.  Beyond that, drought controls remain a significant unknown.  Population growth in the West in the 21st century means scientists and policymakers need to better understand what conditions are likeliest to generate multidecadal droughts, as have occurred in the past.  Without comprehensive planning, dwindling fresh water supplies will threaten millions of people.  That very circumstance is already occurring in western Texas where town wells are going dry.  An important factor in those cases is energy companies’ use of well water for natural gas drilling.  This presents a dilemma more of us will face in the future: do we want cheap energy or cheap water?  In the 21st century, we will not have both options available at the same time as happened in the 20th century.  This presents a radical departure from the past.

As drought affects regions differentially, our policy responses vary.  A growing number of water utilities recognize the need for a proactive mindset with respect to drought impacts.  The last thing they want is their reliability to suffer.  Americans are privileged in that clean, fresh water flows every time they turn on their tap.  Crops continue to show up at their local stores despite terrible conditions in many areas of their own nation (albeit at a higher price, as found this year).  Power utilities continue to provide hydroelectric-generated energy.

That last point will change in a warming and drying future.  Regulations that limit the temperature of water discharged by power plants exist.  Generally warmer climate conditions include warmer river and lake water today than what existed 30 years ago.  Warmer water going into a plant either means warmer water out or a longer time spent in the plant, which reduces the amount of energy the plant can produce.  Alternatively, we can continue to generate the same amount of power if we are willing to sacrifice ecosystems which depend on a very narrow range of water temperatures.  As with other facets of climate change, technological innovation can help increase plant efficiency.  I think innovation remains our best hope to minimize the number and magnitude of climate change impacts on human and ecological systems.


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Didn’t Environmentalists Cheer the Demise of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Yes, yes environmentalists did cheer the demise of the Keystone XL pipeline.  By stopping a Republican amendment earlier this year, the decision on whether to build the pipeline from Canada through the central US was left in President Obama’s hands, which was “rejected“.

It turns out that both the “rejection” wasn’t really a rejection and the cheerleading probably happened too soon.  I say that because today, Obama pushed for the southern branch of the pipeline to be finished faster than originally projected.  Many of the same environmentalists who cheered the original “decision” (read: delay) are the same ones who are now decrying this latest call.

I would put more stock into those complaints if those environmentalists hadn’t spent so much time and energy earlier this year trying to convince me that Obama’s “decision” was really and truly final and Keystone wouldn’t get built.  I argued then, and was proven correct today, that Obama’s “decision” was indeed a delay – it was enough action to get the topic out of the headlines in an election year when he can’t afford to piss off elements of his base too much.

The pipeline was always going to be and in fact will be built in the US.  The part that people should be paying attention to is this: the fossil fuels the pipeline delivers will not be sold in the US – it will be sold overseas because it can fetch a higher price that way.  In return, the “environmentally conscious” President who “cares about the economy” will gladly oversee an increase in deliverable fossil fuels to a largely unregulated, subsidized marketplace which will result in higher fuel prices for every American.  Those fossil fuels will be burned faster than they otherwise would have been and the resultant global warming forcing will be left to future generations to deal with.

But please vote for President Obama in November because who knows what would have happened to the Keystone pipeline if a Republican was in office – it might have gotten built or something horrible like that!  It will be better to get just a little tiny bit of what you want instead of more of what you want if you stop voting for politicians who take your interests for granted.


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Would Romney Run Country Like His Campaign?

If so, we would be in deep trouble financially if he got elected.

For the month of January, Romney’s campaign was negative $12.2 million in funds, which beat … George W Bush’s record in January 2000.

Given the thrashing that Bush did to the U.S. deficit and debt, it’s not a stretch to say we couldn’t afford another Republican President whose campaign spends more than it makes.


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Economics Reading Generates Climate-Related Analogy

While reading some background material for an economics course, I ran across the following:

“But for the monthly or quarterly time spans that economists usually deal with, it seems unlikely that a particular consumer’s tastes would change radically”  [Source: Intermediate Microeconomics A Modern Approach 5th Edition by Hal R. Varian, 1987; 1999; p.118]

This is, of course, proven incorrect when economic conditions change rapidly.  Witness the shifts in consumer behavior after $4.00 gas a few years ago as well as some shifts post-Great Recession.  Now, I am not making a value judgment regarding the inability of economic models to accurately predict consumer behavior after various tipping points were passed.  What I am doing is pointing out that economic models weren’t designed to handle situations in which extreme forces are exerted quickly on the economic system.  Economic models were designed to handle conditions that are much more often found: stable and slowly changing.

By way of analogy, climate models aren’t necessarily designed to handle situations in which extreme forces are exerted quickly on the climate system either.  There is chance (a significant one?) that important aspects of the system will not be well captured by the model.  That is just as alright for climate models as it is for economic models – no value judgment need be made.

Finally, I will point out again that a key feature of any model is to evaluate how well its projections perform by comparing them with observations.  To that end, climate models have historically demonstrated skill; that skill has increased over time as climatologists have made models more sophisticated.  Similarly, economic models have historically demonstrated skill.  What is different about them in this case is that they have failed spectacularly when the situation demanded the most of out them: as rapid change has taken place.  So how prevalent are non-economist comments that economists don’t know what they’re doing and they’re only working because of the incredible amount of money involved and economic models are all bunk because they don’t include fundamental aspects of their system and economics is all a big hoax?  I would say they’re not very prevalent, but then I don’t blog about economics.  I would sure like to know the answer to that question though.


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Boulder City Council Looking At Climate Plan 2.0

News out of Boulder, CO: a reassessment of the city’s climate plan started this week.  There are a couple of reasons for this reassessment.  First, Bolder voters approved plans to move forward with municipalization of utility services due in part to friction with Xcel Energy.  Second, the city’s carbon tax is set to expire in 2013 and Councilmembers want to figure out if they can/should ask voters to extend the tax.  The following is an important component of the news:

The city in 2002 adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Now that 2012 has arrived, the city still needs to cut the equivalent of about 521,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide to meet its goal.

That’s quite a bit of CO2.  It would take approximately 744 GWh of electricity generation to emit that much CO2.  Obviously some commentators jumped on this announcement and declared Boulder’s effort a complete failure.  What it constitutes is what the official interviewed declared:

“It’s not quite as easy as we thought,” Huntley said.

There is no problem with that – it’s a frank admission and better it’s made now than never.  It’s the same lesson I learned through analysis on a project in graduate school last semester.  The scale of the mitigation problem is many times larger than most people, even experts, realize – simply because they haven’t looked at the problem from every vantage point before.  As more and more people realize the enormity of the situation, the goals we set will become more and more realistic.

This is one of the topics I will write additional posts on moving forward.  Now that people have a solid grasp on the fact that anthropogenic global warming is increasingly making its presence felt around the globe, people need to realize how enormous the mitigation problem really is.  Only then will viable solutions be developed and implemented.  Kudos to Boulder and other cities for taking this issue on, even without having all the requisite information at their fingertips.


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Tropical Storm Don Will Land Along Far Southern Texas Coast; Will Drought Be Impacted?

Tropical Storm Don continues to fight dry air and northerly wind shear as it moves WNW across the Gulf of Mexico.  As of this morning, it looks increasingly likely that T.S. Don will make landfall somewhere along the far southern Texas or far northeastern Mexican coast late tonight or early tomorrow morning (local time).

This track is somewhat unfortunate for most of Texas, since T.S. Don is expected to curve toward the WSW as it continues moving inland over Mexico.  The far southern portion of Texas is experiencing drought conditions (see map from yesterday), but they are of lesser magnitude than portions of Texas to the  north.  Still, rainfall is needed in southern Texas and northern Mexico also.  Hopefully T.S. Don will begin shifting conditions in the region.  Tropical moisture entering the region can be recycled a number of times as the North American monsoon continues to push storms up from Mexico into the southern U.S.

For those interested in tropical meteorology, another tropical disturbance is moving across the Atlantic, moving west toward the Lesser Antilles.  The National Hurricane Center is giving the system a 30% chance of developing into a named storm in the next 48 hours.


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Polar Bear Cubs Die More Often With Less Arctic Ice

As Arctic ice thins and melts more and more every year, polar bear cub mortality is rising.  Compared to cubs that don’t have to swim as far to reach sea ice, which had a 19% mortality rate, cubs that are being forced to swim for days without reaching ice had a 45% mortality rate in a recent study.

With less body fat, the cubs can’t maintain their internal body heat as long as adults and they aren’t as buoyant in the water.  The cubs either drown because they can’t keep their noses above water or they succumb to the colder water.

I will point out that this is only one species.  There are many other species we didn’t even know existed that are under similar pressures from our greenhouse pollution.  On top of that, there are yet more species whose fate are being sealed every day we don’t reduce that pollution.

The Anthropocene is underway.  What happens in this Epoch is up to us.

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