Author’s Note.

I’ve been sidelined with some health issues the past few weeks, and have not been able to post any new blogs. The natural world marched ahead without me during that time with earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador, floods in Texas, volcanic eruptions in the Aleutians, tornadoes in the South and Midwest, and a continuing drought in the US Southwest. As my stamina gradually returns, I plan to resume blogging from time to time on natural disasters and natural phenomena.

The main recent item of note has been the report that the South Pole Observatory in Antarctica has recorded a CO2 level of 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time. With that event, every reporting station in the world has now reached or exceeded the 400 ppm mark. The last time the planet’s atmosphere was that high in CO2 was 4 million years ago, according to an article published by the Guardian’s Climate Central dated June 16, 2016.

The burning of fossil fuels continues to elevate the amount of CO2 in the air, and continues to heat the planet. Since 1900, global temperature has risen 1.8°F (1.0°C), sea levels have increased by a foot (30cm). Since 1980, Arctic sea ice volume has decreased by 35%. Because much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere settles in the sea, the acidity of our oceans is the highest it has been in millions of years. Coral reefs are dying and some shellfish populations are dwindling.

We hope the Paris Accords in which all nations agreed to reduce carbon emissions, will be honored by all signatories, giving our planet a chance to have clean air and put the brakes on global warming.

 

Coastal Floods, Heat Waves & Health

As we humans continue to burn fossil fuels and pump 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, and as our planet continues its present warming trend, changes are taking place that will affect where we live and how we feel, according to two recently published studies.

The first study published on March 30, 2016, in the journal Nature, states that the massive Antarctic ice sheet could start melting and breaking up much sooner than projected by the UN Panel on Climate Change, potentially producing a 6 ft. (2m) sea level rise by 2100. The study by research scientists at University of Massachusetts and Penn State University compares today’s sea levels with those of two earlier warming periods in earth’s geologic history when temperatures and CO2 levels were about the same as present conditions. In those earlier episodes, one 150,000 years ago and the other about 3 million years ago, sea levels rose 20 to  30 ft. (6 to 9m) higher than they are now. Given that conditions are comparable, why are we not getting the same dramatic sea level rise now as the earth did then? That’s what the research sought to determine.

At the present time, the Antarctic ice sheet is melting slowly as the ocean water around it warms up and causes melting from below. What the study shows is that the big change will come from above, when the atmosphere warms enough to melt the floating ice that supports the edges of the ice sheet. When the floating ice melts, it will expose towering ice cliffs that will start collapsing under their own weight, triggering massive calving and the beginning of the rapid disintegration of the ice sheet. The researchers believe that because of the continued burning of fossil fuels, the air temperature tipping point is close at hand. Under this scenario, Miami, New Orleans, and other low-lying coastal cities would be submerged by the end of the century.

In a second study, scientists from eight federal agencies of the US government worked together to produce a 300-page report on the toll that global warming will take on human health and well being, if the pace of fossil fuel emissions is not severely curtailed. The study, released on April 4, 2016, projects increased death and disease totals from bigger and more prolonged extreme events such as floods, freezes, heat waves, dust storms, tornadoes, forest fires, and tropical storms.

Air quality will continue to worsen, causing increased fatalities and illness from lung and heart diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 3.7 million people die prematurely each year from breathing bad air. As the planet warms, the number of hot days will increase. Hot weather increases the amount of ground level ozone and small particulates in the air, both of which can obstruct lung function. Insect-borne diseases such as malaria will also increase as the climate warms and breeds more mosquitoes. Climate change will cause an uptick in number of people with mental health problems. More violent heat waves, floods, fires, and storms will put large populations under added stress.

The US study makes many of the same points as those contained in two 2015 studies by scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and The Lancet in the UK. All 3 studies emphasize that the death and disease projections will be greatly reduced when we clean the air by replacing carbon-based energy with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and thermal. The sooner the better, for everyone.

The Impact of Rising Seas

Ice caps are melting, ocean water is warming and expanding, and sea levels are rising. All scientific data, measurements, and models agree on these basic facts. Questions still remaining are how high will the seas rise, how fast will it happen, and what will the impact be on coastal communities?

Three recent studies shed some light on these questions. One study, published in the March 14, 2016, issue of Nature Climate Change, led by a University of Georgia demographer, predicts that up to 13.1 million people living in US coastal communities will be, by the year 2100, displaced by rising seas. The study estimates that with no protective measures, 4.9 million could be forced from the coast if seas rise 2.95 ft. (0.9m), and 13.1 million will have to vacate if seas rise 5.9 ft. (1.8m). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that sea levels will rise between 8 in. (0.3m) and 6.6 ft. (2m), depending on the speed and extent of polar ice melt. Both of the study’s scenarios fall within that range. The Southeastern US would be the area of greatest risk, with half the evacuations occurring in Florida.

Researchers at USGS published a paper in the same March 14 issue of Nature Climate Change stating that 70% of the northeast Atlantic coast has the capacity to change in response to rising seas: barrier islands may migrate inland and form protective dunes, new inlets may form. Tidal marshes can trap sediment and break down decaying plants into new soil, and build up the marshy terrain high enough to keep pace with sea level rise. This study predicts that most coastline communities from Virginia to Maine will not be submerged by sea level rise, but will adapt by forming natural barriers.

An article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Feb. 22, states that sea levels are rising at their fastest rate in 2,000 years. Measurements of past sea levels gathered at 24 sites around the world, and analysis of a 1.1-km (0.6 mi) core pulled from an Antarctic seabed, indicate that sea levels have been rising at a much faster rate in the past 100 years than at any time during the past 2 millennia. The seabed core analysis also shows that land-based ice sheets are vulnerable to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. In the past, the higher the parts-per-million of CO2, the faster the ice caps and glaciers melted. Currently, parts- per-million of CO2 register above 400, compared to the pre-industrial reading of 280. Millions of years ago, when hundreds of erupting volcanoes were changing the shape of the planet, parts-per-million spiked to 500, and ice sheets melted rapidly and retreated far inland. Ocean levels rose dramatically. If humans keep burning fossil fuels and pumping CO2 into the atmosphere at the present rate, a 500 ppm scenario could happen again.

Even with all the studies and climate models, no one knows for sure how fast these changes will take place. But if you live on or near the coastline, it’s best to help your community plan ahead for the changes that are sure to come.

 

 

 

Action On the Ring of Fire

The Ring of Fire, the 25,000 mile (40,000km) series of ocean trenches, volcanic arcs, and colliding tectonic plates fringing the Pacific Rim, from New Zealand to Chile, has 75% of the world’s active volcanoes, and produces 90% of the world’s earthquakes.

The first two months of 2016 have seen moderate activity on the Ring of Fire. Volcanoes in Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Indonesia continue to erupt at low to moderate levels. The Sinabung Volcano on Sumatra keeps extruding lava, with intermittent explosions that belch ash plumes up to 14,000 ft. (4,300m).

Two major earthquakes shook different parts of the Pacific Rim during this period. A Magnitude 7.1 quake hit Southeastern Alaska at 1:30 a.m. on January 24. The epicenter was 160 mi (260km) southwest of Anchorage at a depth of more than 40 miles. The shaking was strong enough to knock out power to 10,000, start gas leaks and fires, and cause moderate damage to roads and structures near the epicenter. The 1 fatality was attributed to a heart attack. If the quake had struck at a shallower depth, the jolt would have been stronger and the damage greater. The Aleutian Arc, where the Pacific Plate slides under the North American Plate, is a highly active seismic area. The second strongest earthquake on record, the Magnitude 9.3 Great Alaska Earthquake, struck in the same area on March 27, 1964.

On February 6, 2016, at 3:27 a.m., the island of Taiwan was hit by a Magnitude 6.4 earthquake. Though not as high a magnitude as the January 24 Alaska quake, the depth at 14mi (23km) was much shallower, and the shaking much more intense. The quake was ranked Intensity VII — Very Strong– on the Mercali Intensity Scale. Also, the epicenter was close to a high-density population center, and therefore much more destructive. Most of the 117 fatalities occurred when an apartment building collapsed and trapped the people living inside. Whether building code violations were involved is under investigation.

Tectonic plates constantly collide and build fault line stress. Volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis can and will strike anytime, anywhere along the always active Pacific Ring of Fire.

 

China’s Bad Air & Bad Health

According to a recent study by scientists from the US, China, and Australia published in the medical journal A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, there were 2.8 million deaths from lung cancer in China in 2015, compared to 158,000 in the US.

The study points out that China’s “Outdoor air pollution, considered among the worst in the world, indoor air pollution through heating and cooking using coal, and the contamination of soil and drinking water mean the Chinese population is exposed to many environmental carcinogens.”

Chinese media reported that people in Beijing spent nearly half of 2015 breathing air that did not meet China’s national standards, which are much less stringent than the standards in the US and Europe. Levels of PM2.5 – harmful microscopic particles that penetrate deep into the lungs – were more than 8 times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum annual average exposure.

China burns 4 billion tons of coal a year, half of the world’s total. About 80% of the coal China burns is bituminous coal, also called soft coal, that, when burned, releases more pollution into the air than anthracite, or hard coal. Chinese coal-burning plants release 5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, plus PM2.5 particles and heavy amounts of methane and nitrous oxide. Some of this pollution not only impacts health in China, but rises into the upper atmosphere, where it is blown by the jet stream and westerly winds across the Pacific to the US and across the Atlantic to Europe.

We hope the pledges made by China and the other 195 nations attending the 2015 climate conference in Paris to reduce their use of fossil fuels will be honored. We will all breathe easier on that clear day in the future when carbon-based energy has been replaced by renewable energy.

 

 

What Caused December’s Weather Havoc?

The last 10 days of 2015 saw some of the deadliest December weather on record for the US Southeast and Midwest. 55 tornadoes were recorded from Texas to Alabama from December 20 through 29. An EF4 tornado with wind speeds approaching 200mph (320km/h) took 9 lives in Mississippi. A rash of tornadoes near Dallas, Texas, including a second EF4, took 11 lives.

The tornadoes were followed by unusually heavy rain events from Louisiana to Ohio that resulted in the worst December flooding in over 60 years. Rainfall totals in one 36-hour period included 5.44″ in Des Moines, Iowa, 10.81″ in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, and 11.74″ in St. Louis.

The National Weather Service said that more than 400 river gauges reported river flooding from Texas to Ohio, and Mississippi to Virginia. The Mississippi River at St. Louis crested at 42.58 ft., third highest level on record. Tributaries to the Mississippi also crested at record levels. The Illinois, Meramac, Bourbeuse, Osage, and Gasconade all topped previous cresting records, one by more than 4 ft. As of this writing, the high water continues to surge down the Mississippi toward New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of structures and thousands of acres of farmland bordering the Mississippi have been impacted by the flooding.

Historically, this kind of tornado and flood activity happens in the spring, from March through June. So what happened to bring spring in December? The weather pattern that triggered these outbreaks featured 2 very important components. The Bermuda High is a massive high pressure system that normally lingers off the US east coast during the winter months. In this case the Bermuda High drifted westward, bringing a mass of unusually moist and warm air into the southeastern states and the Mississippi Valley. At the same time, an intense dip in the jet stream brought a core of cold, arctic air and rapidly spinning winds into the same area. The extreme air mass temperature contrast destabilized the atmosphere, formed low pressure systems, and provided a critical source of energy for developing cyclones and severe rain.

The December tornadoes and floods topped off a weird weather year. 2015 was the world’s warmest year on record. The drought in California resulted in the lowest snowpack in the Sierra Nevada in 500 years. In June, the Pacific Northwest experienced its hottest day on record, with temperatures topping 110°F at many Oregon and Washington reporting stations. In early October, South Carolina was hit by a rainstorm that broke dams, washed out roads, and resulted in what was termed a thousand-year flood. Later in October, Hurricane Patricia, an EF5, the strongest hurricane ever to hit North America with wind speeds of 200 mph, formed off the coast of Baja California, raced eastward across Northern Mexico and brought record rainfall and massive flooding to parts of Texas. And finally, in December, the US northeast had no snow.

Did global warming play a part in 2015’s strange weather? Although not everyone agrees, a number of recent scientific studies have shown a definite link between global warming and the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events