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.


Climate Change & Weather On Steroids

Although there are still those who doubt or deny that global warming influences weather, 98% of the world’s scientists now agree that carbon emissions are contributing to a rapid warming of our planet, and that a hotter earth intensifies extreme weather events.

Three current cases in point are the rainstorms and floods in Texas, the disastrous heat wave in India, and the recent report that the Antarctic ice sheet is melting 70% faster than previously thought. Droughts and floods in Texas are not new, heat waves in India are not new, and there has always been ice sheet melting. What is new is the ramped up intensity, duration, and frequency of these events.

In an article in the May 27, 2015, issue of Scientific American, Texas Governor Greg Abbot described the flooding along the Blanco River as a tsunami-style flood. “This is the biggest flood this area of Texas has ever seen,” he said. 31 deaths have been confirmed and dozens are still missing. The National Weather Service reported that 10 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period in the Houston area and, as of this writing, the rain continues to fall.

Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she believes global warming likely contributed to the extreme conditions. She noted that a combination of a building El Niño and record-breaking ocean temperatures revs up the hydrological cycle. “When storms organize, there’s much more water you can wring out of the atmosphere than in the past,” she said.

Katherine Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech’s Climate Science Center said, “Science does not say global warming is causing the extreme rain. Just like steroids make a baseball player stronger, climate change exacerbates weather extremes, making them worse than they would have been naturally.”

In India, the prolonged heat wave and drought have taken 1,800 lives. Temperatures reached a peak of 118˚F (48°C). In the May 27 issue of Live Science, Subimal Ghosh of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay is quoted as saying that heat waves are not going away anytime soon. In a study published in the April edition of the journal Regional Environmental Change, Ghosh and his colleagues found that heat waves may come earlier in the year. “With the increase of global warming, the occurrence of heat waves will increase,” Ghosh said.

 The Antarctic ice sheet is melting 70% faster than previous studies have indicated, according to a new study published in the March 23 edition of the journal Science by UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography.  There has always been ice sheet melting, but in the past the loss has been offset by new winter snow and ice. That is no longer the case. Fernando Paolo, the study’s lead researcher states, “The forces driving this trend point toward altered wind patterns over Antarctica that bring less precipitation to East Antarctica and warmer water to the continent’s ice shelves. That, in turn, is likely caused by long-term changes in the climate linked to the warming effect of increased carbon building up in the earth’s atmosphere.”

As the director of the Texas Tech Climate Center put it, global warming does not cause extreme weather events, but it makes them worse. It’s like weather on steroids. It will be that way, or worse, until we replace carbon-generated power with green power.

Global WarNing

In March, 2015, concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a global average exceeding 400 parts per million (ppm). it has been 23 million years since CO2 concentrations that high have occurred on earth, according to a February,2015, article in Scientific American.

Every year, 40 billion tons of carbon emissions are pumped into our atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. 98% of the world’s scientists agree that coal, oil, and gas emissions underlie the rapid buildup of CO2 in the air, and the rapid advancement of global warming. Reaching 400 ppm worldwide should act as a global warning of what may lie ahead for mankind if we do not quickly make the switch from a fossil fuel-powered world to wind, solar, and other renewable power sources.

Here are some of the changes we can expect if we don’t change our ways:

Progressively hotter world.  Our planet will continue to get hotter and hotter. According to NOAA, over the last 40 years land temperatures globally have increased at the rate of 0.5°F (0.28°C) per decade. Temperature increases have doubled in the last 50 years over the rate of increase of the prior 50 years. Global warming is speeding up.

 Accelerating Sea Level Rise. According to National Geographic, sea level rise is occurring twice as fast as it did before 1990. The new speeded up rate of increase is 1.4″ (35mm) every 10 years, a 1 ft. (305mm) rise by the end of the century. That’s enough to flood out low lying coastal cities such as Miami and make lower Manhattan and other east coast cities vulnerable to major flooding from storm surges. Venice, Italy, and many atolls could become uninhabitable.

Melting ice sheets. Glaciers and the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are melting at a record pace. Global warming is also warming the ocean. The warmer water gets, the more it expands. Both ice melt water and warm water expansion are contributing to sea level rise.

Acid oceans. The world’s oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb more and more CO2 from the atmosphere. The higher acid content dissolves the calcium carbonate in shellfish shells, threatening our food supply. Coral reefs that harbor great populations of food fish are dying as the acid in the ocean water attacks the carbonate in the coral.

Heat waves and drought. Scientists project more and longer heat waves and droughts not only in arid regions but in grain-growing areas such as the American Midwest and vast areas of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Extreme weather events. Meteorologists predict bigger hurricanes and storm surges, stronger tornadoes, heavier rainfall, and more massive flooding, as well as prolonged heat waves and droughts. Everything we have now on steroids. More and larger wildfires and shrinking ground water supplies are also on the menu.

Can we reverse this gloomy trend? Every time a manufacturing plant installs rooftop panels and converts from fossil fuel power to solar power, we take a step forward. Every time a new wind farm replaces a coal-fired power plant, we take a step forward. We hope to see more and more steps forward as the world gradually weans itself off fossil fuels and converts to green power. When the CO2 ppm drops below 400 we’ll know we’re headed in the right direction.


Can a Nepal-Strength Quake Hit The US?

As reported by all major news organizations, a Magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck near Nepal’s capital, Katmandu, on April 25, 2015, taking more than 6,000 lives, demolishing buildings, and triggering avalanches that killed eighteen mountain climbers on Mt. Everest. Casualties and property damage from the quake were also reported by India, China, and Bangladesh.

The Nepal quake resulted from a major thrust fault rupture where the Indian Plate collides with the Eurasian Plate. This is one of the world’s most seismically active areas. In 2005, a Magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Kashmir on the same fault system triggered massive landslides that buried villages and killed 75,000 people.

Can a quake of equivalent strength hit the US? The answer is yes if you live on the west coast; no, not that strong, if you live along the eastern seaboard; and yes if you live near the New Madrid fault in the middle of the country.

A joint study by USGS, the California Geological Survey, and FEMA, published in April, 2015, indicates that more than 143 million Americans in 48 states live where damaging earthquakes can occur. That’s nearly half the US population, and double the estimate published by USGS 20 years ago. The study was based on an analysis of the newly published National Seismic Hazards Map. Those conclusions appear to be supported by a number of other recently released USGS studies.

One recent study pinpointed the epicenter of the 2011 Virginia 5.8 earthquake that shook the ground from eastern Canada to the Gulf Coast, cracked the Washington monument, and caused damage to buildings in several states. USGS located the epicenter on a previously unknown fault near Quail, VA, 20 miles east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Quail Fault is only 6 miles long, but may connect deep underground with other fault lines in the region. 

New data indicate that the New Madrid Seismic Zone, running through several Southern and Midwestern states, could reactivate and produce an earthquake in the M8.0 range, similar to the one that struck the region in 1811-1812. An earthquake of that strength on any of the 3 fault lines that make up the New Madrid Seismic Zone has the potential for inflicting great damage on parts of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is believed to be contributing to swarms of earthquakes in several states. When fracking operators retrieve the chemical solution used to extract oil from deep shale deposits, they dispose of the waste by injecting it into deep wells. This deep injection lubricates dormant fault lines, causing slippage and earth movement. Oklahoma in particular has seen a great upswing in fracking-induced quakes. Oklahoma had 585 earthquakes of Magnitude 3.0 or higher in 2014. The state is on track for 800 such earthquakes in 2015. Prior to fracking, Oklahoma averaged 3 quakes a year.

On the US west coast, seismologists have been predicting an 8.0 on the San Andreas and up to a 9.3 on the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. And now, a new analysis of a minor fault line has raised some concerns. The Ventura fault, 70 miles north of Los Angeles, runs from the Santa Barbara Channel seafloor, through the city of Ventura, connecting deep underground with other fault lines that run along the foothills of Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. Researchers believe a rupture on that fault could produce a Magnitude 8.0 quake that would inflict great damage on millions of people in 5 Southern California counties.

The best way to protect against a mega earthquake is to make sure the structures where you live and work are built to the latest earthquake standards. And make sure there are no heavy objects on walls or high shelves that can fly loose and injure you. Earthquakes are unpredictable. Even if you live where they seldom occur, it’s best to be prepared.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       


War Refugees — A Human Disaster

It is estimated that 500,000 Iraqi civilians, 200,000 Syrian civilians, and 50,000 Afghan civilians have died from war-related causes. To escape the ravages of war, millions of families have left their homes and sought refuge elsewhere.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, reports that as of mid 2014 there were 46.3 million people under the agency’s care. 13 million were classified as Refugees, meaning those who had fled to another country for safety. In addition, more than 30 million were classified as Internally Displaced Persons, people driven from their homes by war but remaining within their own national borders. Because of the emergence of ISIS, the fighting in Syria and Iraq has intensified since the last UN report, creating millions more refugees and internally displaced persons.

When families have to leave their homes to escape the violence of war, they often go with nothing more than the clothes they are wearing. Material possessions are left behind, income from work or business is lost, all means of support disappear. They are cut off from everything they knew, and set adrift. Most end up in camps set up by the UN or a host country.

In the UN camps, people are housed in tents that can be bitter cold in winter and exceedingly hot in summer. Clothes, food, blankets, the basic essentials for survival, are provided by the UN, the host country, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). UN funds run out from time to time, depending on the ability or willingness of member nations to meet their commitments. NGOs depend on contributions, and their funds can be stretched thin. Host countries often find the camps a strain on their economies and their budgets. When funds run low or run out, refugees are often forced to go on half rations or no rations.

Pakistan is the number 1 host country, housing 2.6 million refugees, mainly Afghans. Turkey is next with 2 million Syrians in 23 refugee camps, or scattered in villages throughout the country. Turkey also hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan. Lebanon is the number 3 Middle East host country with 1.2 million refugees. Jordan is next, harboring 1 million. Africa and Asia also have millions of war refugees housed in camps. Statistical breakdowns on the internally displaced are not readily available, but there are many camps with the same problems as the refugee camps.

As long as there is war, there will be refugees. Since mankind has not yet found a way to avoid war, this will be an ongoing manmade disaster till far into the future. We hope the UN member nations and the rest of us can find a way to ease the burden and give all refugees and displaced persons a new shot at a healthy and secure life.






Tropical Cyclone Pam: A True Monster

Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest storms on record, struck the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu on March 13, 2015, killing 11 on the main island of Efate, and demolishing 90% of the dwellings. Wind speeds were clocked at 300 km/h (185 mph), making it a Category 5 storm.

Waves up to 8m (26 ft) surged inland, flooding huge areas of the islands and washing out crops and roads. Many thousands are reported homeless. Food and water are in short supply. Vanuatu is a vast archipelago of 80 islands lying 1,200 miles northwest of Australia, with a population of 250,000. The storm knocked out communications with Vanuatu’s outer islands, so the total number of killed, injured, or missing, and the full extent of the storm damage is not known at this time.

Tropical cyclones are called hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the North Pacific. They are powerful storms packing high winds and heavy rain rotating around a central eye.

Can a Category 5 storm as powerful as Pam strike the US mainland? The answer is yes. In the past 80 years, 3 destructive Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the continental US. The first, before hurricanes were given names, smashed into the Florida Keys in 1935. Hurricane Camille leveled parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Virginia in 1969. And Hurricane Andrew did great damage in Florida in 1992. All 3 had wind speeds at landfall exceeding 270km/h (160 mph), plus high seas, storm surge, and heavy rain.

Hurricane Katrina which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, killing 1,500, was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall. But the associated heavy rain and storm surge breached New Orleans’ levees causing the worst flood in the city’s history. Superstorm Sandy was only a Category 1 storm with a wind speed of 80 mph (130km/h) when it made landfall in New Jersey and New York in 2012. But the storm was so massive, it pushed an unusually strong storm surge far inland, causing $50 billion in damage. In terms of wind speed and destructive power, Cyclone Pam was more than twice as strong as Superstorm Sandy.

With the world’s oceans rising and getting warmer because of climate change, it seems certain that a storm as strong as Pam will develop in the Atlantic and strike somewhere on the East Coast or Gulf Coast of the US. We don’t know when or where, but all coastal cities should be prepared.