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.













1,000-Year Flood

We never know what Mother Nature has in store. In my last blog recapping natural disasters for the first nine months of 2015, I wrote that the US had a relatively quiet tropical storm season. A few days later, on Oct. 1, a low pressure area formed over the US southeast. At the same time, Hurricane Joaquin had quickly intensified to a Category 5 storm with wind speeds of 155 mph (260 km/h), and moved into the Caribbean. The combination proved disastrous for the state of South Carolina.

After Hurricane Joaquin produced massive flooding and structure damage in the Bahamas, it swung north, paralleling the US east coast. According to an article in the October 5th issue of The Washington Post, the non tropical low pressure system over the southeast had drawn in a deep, tropical plume of water off the warming Atlantic Ocean. At the same time, this upper-level low tapped into the moist outflow of Hurricane Joaquin. The moisture pipeline fed directly into the low pressure system, resulting in a historic rainfall event.

On Oct. 3rd alone, 11.5 inches (29cm) of rain fell on Charleston in 24 hours. A few miles northeast of Charleston, 24.23 inches (62cm) fell on Mt. Pleasant in 24 hours. According to NOAA, South Carolina’s torrential weekend of rain far surpassed a 1,000-year rainfall event. A 3-day 1,000-year, rainfall event for Charleston County would have been 17.1 inches. Starting Saturday, Oct. 3, many reporting points in the county registered more than 20 inches (51cm) of rain, far exceeding the standards for a 1,000-year storm.

The flooding that came with the storm was also unprecedented. 19 people died in the storm and flood. There were 175 rescues. 469 roads and bridges were washed out. 16 dams were breached or washed away. Preliminary estimates of property loss and infrastructure repair exceed $1 billion.

Originally thought to be heading for the US east coast, much like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Joaquin changed course after roaring through the Bahamas, heading north and then east. While causing havoc in the Bahamas, the storm, at the same time, took the lives of 33 crew members of the US container ship El Faro. The ship experienced engine failure before it was able to change course and avoid the hurricane. Without power, it drifted into the heaviest part of the storm, encountering towering waves and 150 mph (250km/h) winds. The US Coast Guard searched for survivors, but finally announced the ship had sunk in the storm, and all hands were lost.

Whether global warming played a role in either the hurricane or the 1,000-year rain is not known. But scientists have been saying for years that as the earth and oceans get warmer, storms will get bigger and stronger.

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.