Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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Record Drought, Wildfires & Record Flooding in U.S. = New Normal

If you encounter national news with any regularity, you’ve probably heard separate news stories that are very much connected.  The first are the record wildfires plaguing Texas – while relatively few in number, the acreage they’ve burned has set a number of records.  The wildfires are accompanied by record drought conditions.  The extreme drought conditions cover a large majority (73.73%) of Texas as of May 3, 2011, as the figure below from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows.  Exceptional drought conditions now affect a whopping 25.96% of Texas.  No part of the state is doing better than abnormally dry this week, which is actually somewhat of an improvement over conditions a week ago.

For many parts of the state, these conditions are more severe than those encountered at any time during the Dust Bowl years, or at any point since record keeping began.

Combine this terrible news with the ongoing saga of record flooding occurring across the middle and southern Mississippi River as well as water sources that feed the river.  Depending on the specific location, this is either the highest the river has ever been or comes in at a close 2nd place.  Those 2nd place finishes are largely a result of decades of levee construction designed to prevent flooding in population centers.  In order to spare those places, planned destruction of levees has taken place in selected locales.  The high rivers and flooding are expected to affect the region for weeks to months to come.  Look at the before and after picture near Memphis, TN.

These sets of simultaneous disasters have preliminary cost estimates of hundreds of millions of dollars.  That figure is likely to rise.

What’s causing these disasters?  The effects of the strong La Nina of 2010-2011 that is currently subsiding.  These effects are likely to continue for a few more months before conditions return to a more normal state.  Underlying the La Nina effects is, of course, global warming.  These type of conditions have been projected to occur for years.  And now the important part: as bad as things are today, they are only likely to get worse in the years and decades ahead.  Precipitation patterns are expected to grow in intensity but fall in frequency.  That means fewer days with rain every year, but when the rain does come, it will come hard and fast.  Worsening drought conditions are likely to spread across the country’s interior.  Those conditions are likely to be interspersed with record rainfall and record flooding.

The science has indicated that these conditions would occur.  The only thing that was mis-projected was the timing: these conditions weren’t supposed to occur for another decade or two.  These conditions will probably grow less severe in the months ahead.  That’s the nature of both the climate system and weather conditions over time.  As stated above, the waning La Nina should allow “normal” weather patterns to return by this fall.  What won’t go away are the new base conditions from which daily weather and future El Ninos and La Ninas exist.  The next flood or drought or wildfire season may not be as bad as this one.  In fact, they probably won’t be.  But the next 10 or 100 floods, droughts and wildfire seasons are likely to be worse, on average, than this one because of the man-made global warming conditions that continue to worsen because of our decision not to act.  Those next sets of disasters will only grow more expensive in terms of lives lost, crops lost, towns affected and ecosystems permanently altered.

The point at which we realize those costs are too high and the cost of taking action on global warming has always been lower will mark a momentous change in our societies.  The bad news is that change will not instantly reduce the severity of disasters yet to come – decades’ worth of warming will still exist in the climate system.  If you don’t like this drought or this wildfire season or this flooding, the solution is clear: it’s time to stop polluting our planet with man-made greenhouse gases.


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You’re Going To Hear A Lot About The Upcoming EPA’s Pollution Actions

Greenhouse pollution will come under stricter controls by the EPA in the future.  The agency’s actions will be dictated by a 2007 Supreme Court decision saying the EPA can and should regulate CO2 in the same way it has regulated other sources of pollution in the past.  The new regulations are slated to be implemented starting Sunday, the 2nd of January, 2011.

Of course, the Republican Teabaggers in both chambers of Congress, at the command of the dirty energy industry, will raise absolute hell about any action the EPA takes, Supreme Court decisions they don’t agree with be damned.  Republican Teabaggers have already threatened that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will likely spend more time answering their witch-hunt-driven questions in Congress than in her office.  Imagine what they outcry would be if the Joint Chiefs of Staff spent more of their time responding to subpoenas than in their Pentagon offices.  Of course, this country has a serious warrior-worship problem.  Such concern doesn’t extend to keeping the environment livable for us.

I wanted to share a part of an article from a New York Times writer, John M. Broder.

For the moment, administration officials are treading lightly, fearful of inflaming an already overheated atmosphere on the issue and mindful that its stated priorities are job creation and economic recovery.
No doubt, John or his editor thought it was pretty clever to insert something like “inflaming an already overheated atmosphere” in an article about regulating greenhouse gas pollution.  Unfortunately, the climate system doesn’t take things like irony into account in responding to that pollution.  It can only respond to physical forcing, which it is already doing.
Without being an activist about the issue, John could have noted a few simple facts: while the EPA’s critics are making the same arguments they’ve made for decades, the globe experienced the warmest November on record just one month ago.  It experienced the warmest December-November on record in the past year.  The 2000s were considerably warmer than the 1990s, which was warmer than the 1980s.  Global warming affects are taking place faster and in more locations than the state of the science said it would just a few short years ago.  But I suppose all those things don’t make for clever writing that “journalists” aim for these days.  Cleverness is better received than accuracy.

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The American Power Act – First Reactions

The Senate’s version of climate and energy legislation was formally introduced yesterday.  Titled “The American Power Act”, the draft is 987 pages long and includes darn near everything.  Reading any substantial amount of the bill is going to take a while; understanding it will take even longer.  Of course, by the time activists read and understand it, it will probably be in the process of being modified.  Regardless, here are two links that I’m looking at.  The first is the full bill; the second is a section by section summary.

S1733- The American Power Act (pdf)

21 page Section by Section summary (pdf)

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Ocean Acidification: 100X Faster Than Last Similar Event

Last week, I wrote about a study that had found warmer waters reaching the glaciers of Greenland, helping to melt those glaciers from below while warm temperatures melt them from above.  This scenario presents numerous dangers for societies around the world.  Faster melting glaciers means faster rising sea levels, which means more impacts sooner.

Today, I will write about a scenario that is potentially more threatening than glaciers melting faster than expected.  New research demonstrates that the oceans are acidifying more quickly than has happened naturally for tens of millions of years.  The threat that presents is when the last similar acidification event occurred, upwards of 50% of marine life went extinct.  It took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to recover from this catastrophe.  It is known as the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, and it happened 55 million years ago.  The event saw global temperatures rise by around 6°C (11°F) over 20,000 years, with a corresponding rise in sea level as the whole of the oceans warmed.  To put that warming in context, climatologists are warning that global temperatures could rise by a similar amount over ~200 years.  That’s 100 times faster than the last rapid global warming event of similar magnitude.

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Climate-Related News 5/29/09

I’m going to talk about two news articles I saw this week.  The first is about Arctic methane concentration levels rising.  After 10 years of no change in concentration values, methane concentrations rose in 2007 and 2008 by 0.6% each year.  While that doesn’t sound like a lot, it is important to remember that methane is 25 times as effective a greenhouse gas as is carbon dioxide.  It therefore takes much less of a rise in concentration to effect the climate in the same way.  The biggest problem is that nobody knows for certain what the source of the new methane is.  Finding that out would give scientists a better idea of how much of an impact on the climate it is likely to have.

Carbon pollution is expected to rise by at least 40% worldwide by 2030 if emissions aren’t cut.  Most of the forecasted rise comes from the BRIC developing countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China.  Ways must be found to bring these countries into the 21st century, technologically and economically speaking, without endangering the planet.  It’s a fact that is acknowledged by climate scientists who are trying to bring increased focus to societal impacts due to climate change as part of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, due to be issued in 2013.