July, 2014 – Bad & Not So Bad

Four natural disasters struck different parts of the world in the first half of July, 2014. One was quite destructive, causing multiple fatalities, injuries, population displacement, and considerable property damage.  The other events, though serious, with some injuries and property loss, could have been worse. But all served as reminders that major catastrophes have struck these areas in the past, and will do so again in the future.

July 15 – Typhoon Rammasun, a Category 3 Tropical Cyclone with winds gusting to 170 km/h ((106 mph), swept across the island of Luzon in the Philippines. 38 people died in the storm, 25,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, over a half million people took refuge in evacuation centers, and 2 million homes lost electrical power. Rice, corn, and other crops suffered $15 million in losses due to flooding. Typhoons causing much greater devastation have hit the Philippines many times in the past, including Super Typhoon Haiyan that struck the southern Philippines in November, 2013, killing more than 6,000.

July 11 – Japan Earthquake. At 4:22 am local time, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck off Japan’s northeast coast near Fukushima, site of the devastating 9.0 megathrust quake and tsunami of March, 2011, that wiped out villages, killed 19,000, and knocked out the Fukushima nuclear power plant. 100,000 people who were evacuated at the time are still unable to return to their homes because of radiation contamination. Authorities reported only one injury and no significant damage from the recent July 11 quake. 8 coastal towns in the area issued an evacuation advisory causing thousands of people to move to higher ground. The advisory was cancelled 2 hours later when the tsunami wave created by the earthquake turned out to be only 20cm (8 in) high.

July 7 – Mexico/Guatemala Earthquake. At 6:23 am local time, a magnitude 6.9 quake rattled southern Mexico and Guatemala, killing 3, injuring 35, and causing widespread property damage. The quake epicenter was on the Pacific Coast in a seismically active area that has spawned 12 quakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher in the past 100 years. In 1985, a quake registering 8.1 with its epicenter off the Pacific Coast in the same general area caused extensive damage and loss of life in Mexico City 220 miles (350km) away. The official death toll for the 1985 quake stands at 10,000, but other sources estimate fatalities could have been as high as 40,000.

July 3 – Hurricane Arthur, the first named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane season, made landfall in North Carolina with a sustained wind speed of 100 mph (155km/h). Classified a Category 2 storm, Arthur weakened as it travelled north, moving ashore again in New England as a tropical storm, bringing flooding and power outages. No deaths or injuries directly related to the storm were reported. However, Arthur was a reminder that far deadlier hurricanes have hit the US East Coast in the past, such as Sandy in 2011, and will again at some future time..

The motto for all these areas vulnerable to natural disasters should be the same as that of the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared.        


Can We Feed 9 Billion?

One billion people on this planet suffer from chronic hunger. With world population projected to increase from the present 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, will there be enough food to go around, or will even more human beings go chronically hungry? Chronic hunger means a basic lack of calories and protein to sustain human health. One-third of the children in developing countries now experience stunted growth, and malnourished people are far more susceptible to disease.

According to the Food & Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO), if population increases to 9 billion, food production will need to rise by 70%, and in the developing world it will need to double. The projected increases in food production will have to overcome rising energy prices, growing depletion of ground water, loss of farmland to urbanization, and increased drought and flooding due to climate change.

Other challenges include a rising middle class in China, India, and other parts of the developing world. As disposable income increases, demand for meat products goes up. Raising cows, pigs, and chickens requires multiple pounds of feed for each pound of meat produced. That means a huge increase in demand for grain, water, and land.

Agriculture is a major emitter of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, pumping more greenhouse gasses into the air than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined. With ramped-up food production, those emissions will increase even more just as the world is trying to reduce the volume of greenhouse gasses going into our atmosphere.

More efficient farming will be needed to overcome these problems. To Big Ag (companies such as DuPont, Monsanto, John Deere, and Archer Daniels Midland), efficiency means using advanced farming techniques with the latest innovations in fertilizer, equipment, and genetically modified seed to produce more food per acre or hectare. However, UN’s FAO believes the answer lies in helping small farmers in developing countries improve production locally by preserving natural resources and practicing better organic farming methods. This includes reduced tillage to save soil (wind blows tilled topsoil away), crop rotation to save soil nutrients, and improved seeds to save water. Rather than use genetically modified seeds, FAO recommends using traditional breeding methods to develop seeds that need less water, produce more, and resist pests and disease.

It seems that both approaches will be needed if the world is to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people a healthy diet, including those who now suffer from chronic malnutrition.  


Rising Seas, Sinking Land, & Flooded Cities

Oceans are warming and expanding in volume. Glaciers are melting at a rapid pace around the world. The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing mass at an alarming rate. The West Antarctica Ice Sheet is eroding and could eventually collapse from ocean water heated by thermal vents recently discovered underneath it. This all adds up to a projected sea level rise of up to 3.3 ft. (1m) by 2100, and possibly more, depending on how fast the Antarctic Ice Sheet melts.

What does this mean for low-lying cities along the US coastlines? Based on studies by USGS, NOAA, National Climate Assessment, and several university research teams, the cities most at risk are located along the Atlantic seaboard from Boston to Florida.

A 2012 study by USGS concludes that sea levels along the US east coast will rise 3 to 4 times faster than the global average during the balance of the 21st Century. While sea levels worldwide are projected to rise 2 to 3.3 ft. (0.7m to 1m) by 2100, they are expected to surge more than 6 ft. (1.8m) along the Atlantic coast. The USGS study and the 2013 National Climate Assessment named Boston, New York, Norfolk, and Miami as the large population centers most vulnerable to sea level rise flooding.

Boston. A University of Massachusetts Boston study indicates that a 2 ft. (0.7m) sea level rise by 2060 would mean twice a day flooding in the lower parts of Boston. During hurricanes, storm surges could flood 30% of the city, including Back Bay and the Harvard campus. The design firm Sasaki Assoc. concludes that approximately 200,000 residents, 89,000 housing units, and $8 billion in property values are vulnerable to flooding during a major storm surge.

New York/New Jersey. The flooding that occurred during Hurricane Sandy is an example of what can happen when rising sea levels combine with a major storm surge. Lower Manhattan and parts of the New Jersey coast suffered severe flood damage when the storm surge overtopped Manhattan’s seawall and powerful waves washed far inland along the Jersey Shore.

An additional problem for most of the mid-Atlantic coast is land subsidence. As sea levels continue to rise, the land is gradually sinking, so that even small sea level changes can result in major damage. When the glaciers that once covered the area retreated after the last Ice Age, the land that had been compressed by the weight of the glacial ice gradually rose, while adjacent land such as the seacoast that had been squeezed higher started to sink. That process has continued for hundreds of years and shows no sign of stopping. Islands in Chesapeake Bay that once stood well above the water line have disappeared over the past 50 years as the bottom sinks and the water level rises.

Norfolk. The land in Norfolk and Virginia’s Tidewater region is sinking especially fast, causing streets throughout the area to flood even during normal high tides. The city is spending millions to raise streets and improve drainage. A long-term fix could cost $1 billion, money the city doesn’t have. The mayor acknowledged that some areas might have to be abandoned.

Miami. The low-lying greater Miami area, with a population of 5.7 million, is one of the worldwide communities most at risk from sea level rise flooding. Miami Beach, at an elevation of 4.4 ft. (1.3m), is already seeing frequent salt water street flooding at high tide. Miami is exceptionally vulnerable because it is built on top of porous limestone, which is allowing the rising sea level to soak into the city’s foundation, bubble up through pipes and drains, encroach on fresh water supplies, and saturate infrastructure. According to the US Government’s National Climate Assessment, the sea level around Miami could rise up to 2 ft. (0.7m) by 2060. Broward County officials estimate a 1 ft. (0.3m) sea level rise will threaten $4 billion of south Florida’s property base.

Most low-lying east coast communities are working on flood mitigation plans. Some are more advanced than others. We hope they complete those plans and put them in place in time to keep their cities dry.





Is El Niño Back?

For the past few years La Niña has been the dominant weather driver, bringing cold, wet winters to the northern tier of states in the US, and drought to much of the southwest, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. In 2011, the drought in Texas and the Southwest expanded into the southern portion of the Midwest, greatly reducing the production of corn and soybeans.

Except for 2013, the Atlantic and Gulf Coast hurricane season was active during the La Niña years, including the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the highly destructive Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Now, according to the scientists at NOAA, there is a 65% chance that La Niña will recede, and El Niño will be back with us this summer. NOAA’s forecast is based on the observed warming of the surface waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. At the moment, the surface waters are cool enough to be declared ENSO neutral, meaning neither too hot nor too cold. But the subsurface water temperatures are warming rapidly. The warm subsurface water is expected to rise to the surface, creating an increase of at least .05°C (.09°F) in the surface temperature. This small rise in the surface temperature in the tropical Pacific is called El Niño, and sets in motion a whole new set of global weather patterns.

If El Niño arrives as expected, the northern tier of US states will become warmer and drier. The Southwestern states and the southeast will be cooler and wetter. The extra rain will help alleviate the long standing drought that has plagued Texas and the Southwest for the past several years, but will probably not be enough to end it.

El Niño will also have an impact on the 2014 hurricane season. The Atlantic hurricane season will become quieter, with fewer hurricanes and even fewer making landfall. El Niño causes the surface water in the Atlantic to cool, and develops strong wind currents off Africa, making it harder for hurricanes to form. For the season which starts on June 1, NOAA predicts a 70% chance of 8 to 13 named storms with winds of 39 mph (65kp/h), of which 3 to 6 could become hurricanes with winds of 74 mph (123kp/h) or higher, including 1 or 2 major category 3, 4, or 5 hurricanes with winds of 111 mph (185kp/h). All are below seasonal norms.

Keep in mind that these forecasts, both for El Niño and for the Atlantic hurricane season, are based on current observations and computer modeling. Computer models sometimes get it wrong, as happened when NOAA predicted an active 2013 hurricane season that turned out to be very quiet. At this point it looks like El Niño is coming back and it looks like a quiet hurricane season, but we will have to wait and see.

Tornadoes — Storms of Mystery

An outbreak of 69 confirmed tornadoes during the last four days of April, 2014, took 35 lives and caused over $1 billion in property damage. Two Arkansas towns north of Little Rock – Vilonia and Mayflower — were the hardest hit. The rash of tornadoes also devastated communities in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.

Tornadoes kill an average of 60 people a year in the US, according to NOAA. This varies greatly by year. 2011 was one of the most destructive and deadly on record. An F4 tornado with wind speeds of 200 mph (322kp/h) wiped out Joplin, Missouri, killing 162. Earlier that year, an F-4 struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama, killing 65 and leveling a wide path through part of the city. Total fatalities for all tornadoes that year were 551, with damages estimated at $28 billion.

Tornadoes are a product of high-energy cloud formations called supercells. In the spring, when warm, moist air flows into the Midwest and Southeast from the Gulf of Mexico, it rises and mingles with layers of cooler, drier air coming in from Canada and the mountain west. The warm air condenses when it meets the cool air, forming cumulus clouds. Rising convection currents create energy and instability inside the cumulus formation. When the energy level peaks high enough, a rotating updraft or mesocyclone develops and the storm formation becomes a supercell. In some cases, the energy moves vertically down from the base of the supercell to the ground in the form of a spinning vortex.

There are several mysteries about tornadoes. Scientists know generally how they form and what happens once they do, but do not know why some storm clouds morph into supercells and most do not. Also, once a cumulus buildup turns into a supercell, why do 30% produce tornadoes, and 70% only rain or hail?  Even though the National Weather Service has gotten quite good at forecasting tornadoes in a specific area, the behavior of a tornado once it touches down is not always predictable.  Tornado paths range in width from 100 yards (91m) to 2.6 mi (4.3km), and the length from 10 miles (16km) to hundreds of miles. They can last from a few seconds to more than an hour. They move across the land in a northeasterly direction at between 30 mph and 70mph (48 to 112kp/h).

Not all states in “Tornado Alley” have building codes that require storm shelters in schools and hospitals, where many of the casualties have occurred in past tornadoes. If more states included that in their building codes, it would undoubtedly save lives in the future.




Are Volcanoes Slowing Global Warming?

In 2013, the world pumped 36 billion metric tons (40 billion US tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. Such emissions form a carbon dioxide blanket that allows the sun to penetrate, but prevents much of the surface heat from reflecting back into space. As a result, the oceans are rapidly warming, arctic sea ice is diminishing, and glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet are melting at a record rate.

The world’s surface temperature has steadily increased for the past 150 years, and it was assumed the curve would keep climbing at the same rate. But unexpectedly, global surface temperature peaked to its highest historical level in 1998, then flattened out and has remained about the same since, raising questions in the scientific community.

A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories study that appeared in the Feb. 23, 2014, issue of the journal Nature Geoscience suggests one reason for this unexpected development is the higher than normal rate of volcanic activity over the past 15 years.  Eruptions during that period included 17 ranked VEI 4 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. A VEI 4 is termed cataclysmic and sends an ash plume 10 to 25km (6 to 15 mi) into the air, sufficient to penetrate the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide aerosols that remain there for months, even years.

“In the last decade the amount of volcanic aerosol in the stratosphere has increased, so more sunlight is being reflected back into space,” said Lawrence Livermore Climate Scientist Benjamin Santer, lead author on the study. “This has created a natural cooling of the planet and has partly offset the increase in surface and atmospheric temperatures due to human influence.” The paper states the research team found evidence for significant correlations between volcanic aerosol observations and satellite-based estimates of lower temperatures, as well as sunlight reflected back into space by the aerosol particles.

Santer’s conclusions seem to be supported by an earlier study by the University of Saskatchewan. In this study, the researchers found that sulfur dioxide aerosols from a very small African eruption had “hitchhiked” their way into the stratosphere. Warm air rising from the seasonal Asian Monsoon lifted the volcano’s aerosols from the lower atmosphere into the stratosphere, where it was detected by the Canadian Space Agency’s satellite OSIRIS, an instrument specifically designed to measure atmospheric aerosols. Even though coming from a small eruption, the concentration of particles was the largest load of SO2 aerosol ever recorded by OSIRIS in its 10 years of operation.

The Lawrence Livermore paper suggests that one other possible contributor to the temporary cooling effect is the unusually long and low minimum in the solar cycle. Don’t be surprised to see surface temperatures start climbing again when volcanic activity subsides and the cooler phase of the solar cycle concludes.