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 We will all breathe easier on that clear day in the future when carbon-based energy has been replaced by renewable energy.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


Warmest Year On Record

According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, 2015 is on track to be the warmest year on record. NOAA’s findings are confirmed by data released by the UK’s Met Office and the Japan Meteorological Agency.

NOAA’s November data show that the first 11 months of 2015 were the warmest such period on record across the world’s land and ocean surfaces, at 0.87°C (1.57°F) above the 20th century average.

The average global temperature across land surfaces was 1.31°C (2.38°F) above the 20th century average. The average global sea surface temperature was the highest for January-November in the 136 years since records have been kept.

In addition to elevating land and ocean temperatures, climate change is rapidly warming lakes around the world, threatening fresh water supplies and ecosystems. A new NASA and National Science Foundation study published in Geophysical Research Letters incorporated more than 25 years of satellite temperature data and ground measurements of 235 lakes on 6 continents. The study found that lakes are warming an average of 0.34°C (0.61°F) every ten years. This is greater than the warming rate of either the ocean or the atmosphere, and can produce profound effects. Algae blooms, which can rob water of oxygen and kill fish and plant life, are projected to increase 20% over the next century.

Rivers and streams around the world are also warming, and the flow rates of many major river systems are dropping due to thinner snowpacks in surrounding mountains. This combination of warming fresh water and lower river flow rates is negatively impacting the water supplies of many municipalities and farmland irrigation districts.

Is it possible to slow the rate of global warming to the point where it inflicts no further damage on our environment? It depends on whether the nations that signed the recent Paris agreement will live up to their commitments. The agreement calls for all nations to hold global temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F) by drastically reducing carbon emissions. A starting fund of $100 billion is called for to help nations with emerging economies make the transition. We hope that the nations of the world can come together and make this happen.



Will Paris Climate Talks Make a Difference?

190 nations are represented at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, in session November 30 to December 11. Their goal is to agree on international greenhouse gas restrictions to keep the planet from warming more than 2°C (3.6°F) over the pre-industrial level. During 2015, global temperature has advanced 1°C above the pre-industrial level. Three quarters of the increase came in the past 20 years, meaning global warming is speeding up. That brings a sense of urgency to the business of agreeing on an effective plan.

Every nation brings its own agenda to the meeting, along with its good intentions, to reach an agreement. Emerging economies are hesitant to switch from cheaper carbon fuels such as coal to generate the power they need to compete in a global market. More mature economies, such as the US and the EU, will be pushing to replace coal and oil with alternative sources, such as wind and solar. Hopefully, the negotiators will be able to bridge the gap and come together on a workable agreement. If they fail, there seems little doubt that carbon emissions will continue to grow and the planet will soon reach and breach the 2°C mark, resulting in high-speed melting ice caps, swamping sea level rise, and an overheated planet.

2015 is the hottest year on record • The years 2011 to 2015 are the hottest 5 years on record • The level of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for three months running in the spring of 2015, the highest ever recorded • Ocean surface temperatures during 2015 were the highest ever recorded •The world’s glaciers and ice caps are melting faster in 2015 than ever before, losing a half meter to a meter in thickness, two to three times the average rate of the 20th century • Global average sea level rise in 2015 is the highest since satellite measurements started in 1993.

In view of those record-breaking numbers, 2015 is the appropriate year to make an all-out effort to put the brakes on global warming. We wish those working on the problem in Paris great success.



Lost In the News Cycle

Natural disasters strike in all parts of the world every month of the year, but some that occur in remote locations often receive scant media coverage. The 24-hour news cycle thrives on the latest story, and the media seldom continue coverage after the initial report of a disaster elsewhere in the world.

During October, 2015, Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, the strongest on record, and heavy rains and flooding in Texas that killed 23 and destroyed or damaged 50,000 homes, received plenty of media coverage, but more deadly October events were hardly mentioned after the original reports. Here are a few examples.

Hindu Kush earthquake. The Hindu Kush is a mountain range that stretches 500 mi (800km) between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is the western extension of the Himalayas, with mountain peaks soaring up to 25,000 ft. (7,700m). On October 26, a Magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck on the Afghanistan side of the range, triggering landslides that killed 400 people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. Tremors were felt all through Central Asia, and as far away as Western China.

Indonesian fires. In October, forest and bog fires continued to burn out of control on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, wiping out millions of acres of tropical forest and causing a thick, choking haze that affected the health of millions of people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines. 500,000 are being treated for lung infection, and wildlife habitat is being decimated. The fires were started by people engaging in illegal slash-and-burn tactics to clear land for farming. The fires spread rapidly due to a stretch of unusually dry weather. The bog land contains deep layers of peat, and once set ablaze, is hard to put out. The carbon-rich peat fires have pumped 600 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. The Indonesian government estimates it will cost $47 billion to mitigate the damage.

Guatemala landslide. On October 1, at least 280 people died when a steep, rain-saturated mountainside above the Guatemalan village of Cambray Dos collapsed. The mountainside gave way at 9:30 at night, and the fast-moving landslide trapped people in their homes, many of which were buried under 50 ft. (15m) of mud and debris.

Philippines typhoon. Typhoon Koppu struck the island of Luzon on October 17, with sustained winds of 115 mph (185km/h), gusting to 150 mph (240km/h). The Joint Typhoon Warning Center Center reported Koppu as a Category 4 storm. As the typhoon weakened over Luzon’s mountainous terrain it dumped 42 inches (1078mm) of rain on Baguio, 120 mi (200km) north of Manila. The result was massive flooding that took 58 lives and made 100,000 homeless.

An earthquake, an erupting volcano, a tsunami, a tropical storm, a forest fire, a flood, a tornado, a landslide, or a drought strikes somewhere in the world almost every day of the year. But we only hear about a few. Mother Nature is a restless lady. Media coverage or not, natural disasters will continue to occur, and on a bigger scale as global warming progresses.


Warm Ocean, Warm Air, Record Storms

On Oct. 23, 2015, Hurricane Patricia slammed into the west coast of Mexico. It had developed from a tropical storm into the strongest hurricane ever to make landfall on the North American continent, with wind speeds of 200 mph (330kp/h).

On Oct. 21, a storm system that originated in the warm Pacific waters off Baja California crossed the US southwest and hit Texas with drenching, record-breaking rainfall. One Texas town reported 20 in. (51cm) of rain in a 24-hour period. On Oct. 24, the remnants of Patricia added moisture to the Texas storm system, bringing even more heavy rain.

From Oct. 1 to 5, South Carolina was inundated with heavy rainfall that breached dozens of dams, washed out roads, and resulted in what was called a thousand-year flood.

What is causing these record-breaking storms that have been soaking and flooding the southern US and Mexico? A number of factors seem to apply. The air is warmer than normal due to climate change. The water in the Pacific Ocean is much warmer than normal due to a robust El Niño. The water off the west coast of Mexico stood at 87°F (30.6°C), 2 to 3° above normal, when Patricia grew from a 65 mph tropical storm into a 200 mph Category 5 hurricane in just 30 hours.

Not only do tropical storms form and grow in warm tropical water, but warm air causes greater evaporation, and warm air retains evaporated moisture in the form of highly saturated clouds. As one meteorologist put it, these have been very juicy storms, meaning the atmosphere is supercharged with moisture that comes down in the form of record-breaking rain.

Other meteorological factors contribute to conditions that favor powerful storms, such as the absence of vertical wind shear that, when strong, can disrupt tropical storm formation.

Climate scientists, for years, have been saying that global warming accelerated by unchecked burning of fossil fuels will bring bigger, stronger, and wetter storms. More destructive storms, rising sea levels, and more severe droughts all seem to be products of a warming planet.

The only way we can slow the global warming juggernaut is to replace our present fossil-fuel based economy with an alternative energy economy. The sooner we are able to switch from oil and coal to wind and solar, the sooner we’ll have clearer skies, cleaner air, gradually cooling temperatures, and less potent storms.