2015 Natural & Human Disaster Recap

A number of destructive natural disasters and one major human disaster occurred in the first 9 months of 2015.

The worst natural disaster in terms of loss of life and property damage was the magnitude 8.1 earthquake that struck Nepal in April. The quake triggered landslides in the mountain valleys and an avalanche on Mt. Everest. Thousands of structures were destroyed, entire villages flattened, and hundreds of thousands made homeless. More than 9,000 people died in the tragic event.

In Colombia, on May 18, a landslide triggered by upstream flooding of a local river killed 78 in the town of Salgar. An 8.3 earthquake off the coast of Chile started a tsunami that caused damage in coastal villages. The earthquake killed 12.

Overall, hurricanes and typhoons took a smaller toll than normal. No hurricanes made landfall in the US, through September. Tropical Storm Erika hit the island of Dominica in the Caribbean in August, taking 20 lives. Typhoon Togage struck Japan in September, creating floods and landslides that killed 69, with another 19 missing. In August, Typhoon Ineng battered northern Luzon in the Philippines. 21 died and 15 were reported missing.

Northern California wildfires took 6 lives, destroyed over 1,000 homes, and scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and brushland.

Perhaps the biggest disaster of all in 2015 is the ongoing refugee crisis. In the first 8 months of the year, more than 300,000 people fleeing war and oppression in Africa and the Middle East crossed the Mediterranean into Europe. The flood of people seeking safety continues unabated, overwhelming many of the smaller European countries trying to deal with the influx. It is a manmade disaster, monumental in terms of human suffering.

The migrants travel at great risk, often with no food or water and only the clothes they are wearing. In the past 2 years, more than 6,000 have died making the crossing. About half the migrants are children. While Germany and a few other European countries have agreed to resettle some of the refugees, many EU countries have closed their borders, leaving thousands of refugees in limbo. With winter weather coming, those who have not found shelter will be at even greater risk.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, does not have the funds to help resettle the heavy influx into Europe. UNHCR is struggling to find the money to operate the camps it has already set up to house more than 13 million refugees around the world. Many governments, including Turkey and Pakistan, also operate refugee camps, as do a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). According to UN statistics, the total number of forcibly displaced persons worldwide stands at 60 million.

As long as there is war, there will be refugees. Unfortunately, mankind has not yet learned how to live in peace, and has not yet learned how to deal with war’s inevitable collateral damage.

Melting Ice & Rising Seas

According to a new study released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Greenland Ice Sheet has lost more than 300 billion tons of ice every year since 2004, and the loss is increasing at the rate of 31 billion tons of ice per year as the planet keeps getting warmer.

Almost as big as Alaska, the Greenland Ice Sheet spans 600,000 square miles (1.7 million square kilometers). It is 2 miles (3km) thick and is losing more ice in the summer than it gains back in winter. The Ice Sheet’s summer melt season now lasts 70 days longer than it did in the 1970s. The Greenland Ice Sheet has the ultimate potential to raise the world’s oceans by more than 20 ft. (6m).

At the bottom of the world, the Antarctic Ice Sheet covers 5.4 million square miles (14 million square km), an area larger than China and India combined, and 9 times larger than the Greenland Ice Sheet. It contains enough ice to raise the world’s ocean levels by about 190 ft. (58m).

The Transantarctic Mountains divide Antarctica into West Antarctica and the much larger East Antarctica. The ice shelves in East Antarctica appear to be fairly stable at this point, but the ice shelves in West Antarctica are collapsing. In 2002, a 1,250 square mile (3,240 square km) chunk of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in West Antarctica broke off and floated away. In the years since then, the remainder of Larsen B and the glaciers it had been holding in place have been gradually sliding into the sea. Scientists studying the problem believe the collapse of the entire West Antarctica Ice Shelf is underway. One study predicted that in the next 200 to 1,000 years, the West Antarctica Ice Sheet will disappear, adding up to 12 ft. (4m) of sea level rise.

The reason for the more rapid melting of West Antarctica appears to be a layer of warm ocean water eating away at the bottom of the ice shelf.

Although East and West Antarctica hold far more ice than Greenland, the Antarctica melt rate is much slower. At the moment, Antarctica is losing 118 billion tons of ice a year, compared to Greenland’s more than 303 billion tons. Together, they account for about two thirds of annual sea level rise. The remaining third is due to ocean water expanding as it gets warmer. The world’s oceans have risen 8 in. (2.9cm) since 1900. But the rate of rise is speeding up. We’ve had a nearly 3 in. (7.4cm) increase in just the past 20 years.

How much and how fast will the oceans rise in our future? The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects up to a 38 in. (97cm) rise by 2100, depending on the melt rate of the ice sheets and how quickly we can control the burning of fossil fuels and the warming of our planet. If you live in a coastal community, it will probably be a good idea to start thinking about remedial action against a rising sea. Or get ready to pull on your rubber boots.







Breathing Bad Air From China

A 21% reduction in ozone-forming pollutants in the Western US between 2005 and 2010 was partially wiped out by polluted air from China blowing across the Pacific Ocean, according to a study by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and scientists from The Netherlands, published on August 10, 2015, in the online journal Nature Geoscience.

Ozone is composed of nitrogen oxide gasses (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC), by-products of burning coal and gasoline, such as car exhaust gasses and factory smoke. Also, particulates from tobacco smoke, aerosol sprays, and paint fumes contribute to the toxic mix. The study measured ozone readings between 10,000 and 30,000 ft (3 to 9km) above ground level. Over time, about half those pollutants will sink to ground level. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ground level ozone causes shortness of breath, eye irritation, and sore throats, and long exposure can prematurely age lungs and cause lung disease. Ozone is a major component of smog.

China’s power plants and factories burn more than 4 billion tons of coal a year, and more coal-burning plants are under construction and scheduled to go online in the years ahead. Most of China’s coal-burning plants do not use pollution mitigation technology, so most of the coal-burning ozone pours out the smokestacks directly into the lower atmosphere. The pollutants rise with the heat into the upper atmosphere (troposphere) and the stratosphere. The jet stream at higher altitudes and prevailing winds at lower altitudes carry the polluted air westward across Japan, across the Pacific Ocean, and into the skies of the Western US.

While China has been active in developing wind and solar energy projects, renewables are a very small percentage of China’s total energy production. Coal furnishes 70% of China’s energy and will continue to be their major source of power for the foreseeable future.

China is not alone in producing pollutants that cross borders. The US still burns about a billion tons of coal a year, and while many American plants are equipped with scrubbers and other mitigating systems, pollution still escapes into the atmosphere and travels with the wind. US pollution reaches the EU, and EU pollution blows on toward Mongolia and into China.

The answer lies in renewable energy such as wind and solar gradually replacing coal-burning plants throughout the world, including China. When that day finally arrives, we will all breathe easier.









Are Seawalls the Answer?

Articles have appeared in the media recently quoting different studies on projected sea level rise. Some have said a 20 ft. (6m) rise will take place. Another predicts a 250 ft. (76m) increase. Those projections are for sea level rise hundreds of years from now. Either one would put all coastal cities under water.

In the near term, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a sea level rise of up to 1 meter (3.3 ft.) by 2100, based on the current rate of global warming increase, thermal seawater expansion, and the melt rate of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets.

However, a new paper published the week of July 20, 2015, in the European Geosciences Union journal projects a sea level rise of up to 10 ft. (3m) by 2100. The study authored by James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Climate Center and now a professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and 16 co-authors, bases its projections on evidence that the Antarctic ice sheet is melting 10 times faster than thought, due to warming ocean waters and increases in carbon emissions. Not all climate scientists agree with the new study, but most are taking it seriously.

But even the more modest UN projection puts coastal communities at risk. A 1m (3.3 ft.) sea level rise would flood much of Miami and a large part of lower Manhattan, driving millions of people from their homes and causing trillions of dollars in property loss. The UN panel also predicts that tropical storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy will be more common and more intense. If you add the threat of storm surge to the projected sea level rise, many coastal communities will be in dire flood danger by the end of the century.

That is, unless steps are taken to protect those communities against the rising sea by building seawalls or dike systems. The question is would building such mitigation systems cost more than projected property loss if nothing were done?

The answer may well be found in a paper published in the February 3, 2014, edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to this study conducted by the Global Climate Forum, the cost of property loss if nothing is done could be as high as $100 trillion worldwide. On the other hand, if dike systems are built in exposed locations, the cost of flooding could drop to around $80 billion.

If the decision is made to protect coastal communities with dikes or seawalls, several questions arise. First, where does the money come from? The 2015 budget for the US Corps of Engineers allocates only $28 million for flood control and coastal emergencies, which won’t go far when construction will run into the tens of billions. The funds required would have to be either voted by Congress or provided by local jurisdictions by raising taxes or issuing bonds. It will probably take several disasters before either is likely to happen.

If funding is provided, the next decision is whether to build hard seawalls of reinforced concrete, or use the so-called soft system preferred by the Dutch. Hard seawalls are usually erected at the water’s edge to protect existing structures that have been built close to the high tide line. Drawbacks are high cost, degradation of beaches, and a landscape eyesore. Also, even the highest seawalls can be overtopped by a strong storm surge or major tsunami.

The Dutch “soft system” utilizes a wide beach with dunes as the first barrier, then a belt of woodland, and finally a wall of low dikes built of sand, clay, and a straw binder. Wetlands and drainage canals are also used to handle excess water. The eroding beach sand is constantly replenished with a device called a sand engine. The Netherlands system requires more land and mandates that structures be built much farther back from the tide line than in the US.

Whether we see a 1 meter or a 10 meter sea level rise, and whether concrete seawalls or earthen dikes are used, it appears that some form of protection against rising and stormy seas is in our future.




Energy Storage: Key to Carbon-Free Future

In 2014, the US produced 4,093 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Two-thirds of that power was generated by burning coal and natural gas. Nuclear accounted for 19%. Wind, solar, and other renewables made up the remaining 15%.

One of the problems that will have to be solved if renewables are to completely replace carbon-based sources, is the ability to efficiently store unused power. Coal and natural gas powered plants keep producing electricity at the same rate 24 hours a day. During periods of low demand, much of that produced power goes unused, and billions of tons of CO2 and methane are emitted into the atmosphere.

Wind and solar do not emit greenhouse gasses, but when the wind doesn’t blow, wind farms can’t produce energy. When the sun goes down, solar farms stop producing as well. If wind and solar are to replace coal and gas, a way to store excess energy produced when the wind blows and the sun shines will have to be developed on a mass commercial scale so that the stored electricity can be released into the grid at night and on calm days.

A number of national laboratories and commercial companies are currently involved in energy storage development. Sandia National Lab and Argonne National Lab are both working directly with the US  Dept. of Energy (DOE) to develop advanced grid storage technologies.

CalCharge is a consortium of national labs and commercial companies in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, joining together to develop cost-competitive energy storage. Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratories are part of the team.

The Energy Storage Association (ESA) has 120 members, including major public utilities such as PG&E and Duke Energy; international corporations such as LG, Hitachi, Bosch, Lockheed Martin, and Mitsubishi; and dozens of companies specializing in energy storage. The mission of the Association is to cooperate in the development of more efficient grid electrical storage.

 The 3 storage systems in widest use at this time are pumped hydroelectric, lithium ion batteries, and traction drive.

Pumped hydroelectric is a system using upper and lower reservoirs. During times of low grid usage, the excess electricity is used to pump water uphill to the top reservoir. When more energy is needed during times of peak usage, water in the upper reservoir is released through turbines that generate electricity for the grid.

Lithium ion batteries, a staple in electric and hybrid vehicles, are limited in range and capacity. A team at Argonne National Lab has been working to improve the capacity and longevity of lithium ion batteries. Several commercial companies including 24M, a company started by a group of MIT researchers, are also developing a higher capacity, longer range lithium ion battery.

Traction drive employs a fleet of shuttle trains operating on a closed rail network to transport electric masses between two storage yards at different elevations. The system operates very much like the pumped hydroelectric, shuttling energy to the top yard during times of low usage, and sending it back to the lower yard when the grid experiences high demand.

 For those who want to go off the grid,Tesla has developed a line of lithium ion batteries called Powerwall for storing rooftop solar energy. Homes with solar panels can install either a 7 kilowatt-hour or 10 kWh suitcase-size battery that can be used for backup power, or for daily use when the sun goes down.

With all the developmental activity, both government and commercial, there seems to be a good chance that enough cost-effective grid storage capacity will be available to make the transition from carbon to renewable energy a reality.  








Tornado Damage 2015

NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center reports 716 tornadoes in the US in the first 5 months of 2015. Although most tornadoes occur in the American Midwest and South, vortex storms are not a US exclusive. They occur in many other countries and can be as destructive as in the US, if not more so.

A good example is the tornado that sank the Chinese cruise ship Eastern Star in the Yangtze River on June 1, 2015. According to the China Meteorological Centre, a supercell associated with a stalled storm front spawned an EF1 tornado with funnel wind speeds up to 109 mph (175km/h) in Hebei Province near the Yangtze. While crossing the river, the tornado struck the cruise ship, causing it to capsize. 434 people were confirmed dead in the tragedy.

In Brazil, on April 20, 2015, an EF2 tornado with wind speeds up to 135 mph (225km/h) struck the city of Xanxere, damaging 500 homes. 1 person died, 120 were injured, and 1,000 were left homeless. On May 5, 2015, an EF3 tornado with wind speeds to 165 mph (275kp/h), hit the German city of Bützow causing major structural damage to the city’s buildings. On the same date in Hamburg, straight-line thunderstorm winds killed 1 person and injured 30.

Worldwide tornado fatalities so far in 2015 total 463: including 434 in China, 14 in Mexico, 10 in the US, 3 in Myanmar, and 2 in Brazil.

In the US, on March 25, a waterspout developed over Keystone Lake near Sand Springs, Oklahoma. The spout became an EF2 tornado that moved through a mobile home park, resulting in 1 fatality, 30 injuries, and extensive property damage.

On April 8, an EF4 with wind speeds reaching 200 mph (330km/h) hit northern Illinois, killing 2 people and injuring 22. On May 9, a series of EF3 tornadoes killed 1 person near Cisco, Texas, 2 people in the town of Van, Texas, and another 2 in Nashville, Arkansas, making a total of 5 deaths on a single day.

Although tragic for those impacted by the storms, the 2015 tornado fatalities and property damage totals are somewhat less than those in prior years. For example, in 2011, 553 people died in a series of violent tornadoes. Alabama and Missouri were especially hard hit during that year. The average annual number of tornado deaths in the US is 109.

The reason given by NOAA for the lower than normal tornado activity in 2015 is the pattern of a long-term trough in the east that brought cooler temperatures to that part of the country, and a high-pressure ridge that has persisted in the west bringing warmer temperatures. The combination has reduced the number of thunderstorms and supercells over the middle part of the US. That pattern will change and there will be future years with above average tornado activity, and they may be stronger than ever due to global warming. If you live in a tornado prone area, be prepared.