The Always Active Ring of Fire

The Ring of Fire circles the Pacific Basin in a 40,000km (25,000 mi) series of deep ocean trenches and active fault lines from New Zealand to the southern tip of South America. The trenches and fault lines occur where two tectonic plates meet. In most cases, it is an oceanic plate such as the Pacific Plate pressing into and pushing under a continental plate such as the North American or Eurasian Plate that causes trouble. This constant pressure creates the stress that from time to time causes a fault line rupture resulting in a catastrophic earthquake often followed by a tsunami.

In November, 2016, two strong earthquakes hit on the Ring of Fire. The first was a magnitude 7.8 that struck New Zealand’s South Island near Christchurch on November 14. The quake triggered a tsunami that caused little damage, but the quake itself caused massive infrastructure damage and killed two people.

One week later, on November 21, Japan had a magnitude 7.4 earthquake that occurred in the same area as the disastrous 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Although the November 21 quake was felt as far away as Tokyo, it caused no serious damage or loss of life.

The four strongest earthquakes on record all happened on the Ring of Fire. The strongest recorded since modern record-keeping began in 1900 was the magnitude 9.5 Valdivia quake that struck along the coast of Chile on May 20, 1960. It devastated Chilean infrastructure, killed 6,000 people, triggered a 25m (82 ft) tsunami that washed away villages along the Chilean coast, started landslides in the Andes Mountains, and sent a 10.7m (35 ft) tsunami rippling out across the Pacific, hitting Hawaii, Alaska, Japan, and the Philippines 10,000km (6200 mi) away.

The second strongest ever recorded was the Great Alaska Earthquake of March 27, 1964. A magnitude 9.2, the quake resulted from a massive fault line rupture in the Aleutian Trench off the southern coast of Alaska. The Aleutian Trench marks the convergence of the Pacific and North American Plates. The tsunami wave generated by the earthquake reached a height of 67m (219 ft) in one Alaskan inlet. Several coastal villages were wiped out and had to rebuild on higher ground. 131 people died.

The Indian Ocean earthquake of December 26, 2004 was the third strongest on record, but by far the most destructive. A massive 1,000km (600 mi) rupture along the boundary between the oceanic Burma Plate and the continental India Plate triggered a magnitude 9.1 earthquake and a killer tsunami, taking 230,000 lives in 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Indonesia and Thailand were especially hard hit. 15 to 30m (50 to 100 ft) tsunami waves washed far inland, catching many by surprise. The Indian Ocean had no tsunami warning system in place at the time.

On March 11, 2011, the east coast of Japan was hit by the fourth strongest quake on record, followed by a highly destructive tsunami. Waves up to 40m (133 ft) washed 10km (6 mi) inland, causing the Fukushima nuclear power plant to go into meltdown. Authorities reported 19,000 dead or missing, and 230,000 displaced due to massive infrastructure damage and radiation danger. The fault line rupture took place in the Japan Trench where the Pacific Plate meets the continental plate underlying the island of Honshu. The quake was so strong it elevated Japan’s main island of Honshu 3m (10 ft) and moved the island 2.4m (8 ft) east.

More than 10,000 earthquakes occur on the Ring of Fire each year. Most are minor quakes of magnitude 5.0 or less. We don’t know exactly where or when the next big one will strike, but it will not be a surprise if it is somewhere on the Ring of Fire.    

 

 

Our World in 2100

What will our planet look like and feel like in the year 2100? An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report dated Sept. 29, 2016, uses the latest climate models and climate research to give us an idea of probable global conditions at the beginning of the 22nd Century.

The range of conditions depends on how much CO2 we continue to pump into the atmosphere by burning gasoline, oil, coal, and natural gas. If we significantly cut back on the burning of fossil fuels in favor of wind, solar, and other renewable sources, the impact of climate change will be less severe. If we continue burning fossil fuels at the present rate, the impact of climate change will be extreme.

CO2 Levels. Parts per million (PPM) of CO2 in the atmosphere currently stands at 400, a substantial increase over the historical PPM of 280. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) puts forth four scenarios for future climate, depending on the level of fossil fuel burning: The lowest scenario is a rapid curtailing of fossil fuel burning and the PPM remaining around 400. The highest is based on burning fossil fuels at the current rate, in which case we could see a PPM as high as 1,400. The most realistic scenario would be the middle path of 600 to 800 PPM. The higher the PPM, the hotter our world will be.

Temperature Increase. The range of global temperature increase by 2100 will range from 0.5°F to 8.6°F, with a likely increase of at least 2.7°F. The average US temperature is projected to increase 3°F to 12°F by 2100. Among the projections are more intense and more frequent heat waves, and an increase in the number of 90-degree days.

Rainfall & Storms. Global average annual precipitation is expected to increase, but amounts will vary by region. When it rains, the rain will come down harder and there will be more of it than in the past. Wind speeds associated with tropical storms will increase, and amount of rain falling in a tropical storm will be heavier. Flood-prone areas will be at higher risk.

Ice Caps, Glaciers, & Snow. The coastal sections of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are expected to continue to melt and slide into the ocean. Models project a 15% to 25% decrease in amount and extent of arctic sea ice for every 2°F of global warming. Glaciers are expected to continue shrinking, the melt water contributing to sea level rise. Globally, snow cover is expected to decrease by 15%. Snow season will start later and melting will happen earlier than at present. Mountain snowpack will be thinner and melt earlier.

Sea Level Rise. Studies project global sea level rise by 1 to 4 feet, with an outside possibility of 6.6 feet, depending on the rate of ice sheet and glacier melt. A sea level rise of 2 feet will raise the sea level in New York harbor 2.3 feet, Hampton Roads 2.9 feet, and Galveston 3.5 feet. With sea levels that high, storm surges could inflict great damage in those areas.

Ocean Acidity. Acid content of the ocean is projected to increase 30%, weakening the shells of shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and clams, and devastating coral reefs.

It looks like 2100 will see longer, hotter summers, shorter winters, intense rainfall in wet areas, desert-dry drought in others, and stronger storms. We can help ourselves and future generations soften the impact by speeding up the changeover from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

 

 

 

Can Asian Typhoons Hit the USA?

Major tropical storms with high wind speeds and heavy rain have different names in different parts of the world. They are hurricanes in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, and around Baja California. But In the western Pacific they are called typhoons. We generally think of hurricanes impacting the Caribbean, the eastern seaboard, and the gulf coast; and typhoons striking the Philippines, Taiwan, and the southern coast of China.

But once in a while, a typhoon that starts in Asia, instead of following the normal southern track, will drift north into the jet stream and travel 5,000 miles (8300km) on a path south of the Aleutians, to eventually hit the west coast of the United States.

That’s what happened on October 15, 2016, when Typhoon Songda slammed into the coasts of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.

Typhoon Songda started as a low-pressure system in warm tropical waters southwest of Hawaii on October 3. It drifted west toward Japan, where it developed into a tropical storm on October 8. It strengthened into a typhoon on October 10. According to the Japan Meteorology Agency, Songda reached its peak southeast of Japan as a Category 4 typhoon on October 11 with wind speeds topping 150 mph {250km/h).

Typhoon Songda then drifted north into the jet stream and traveled at the amazing speed of 60 mph (95km/h) eastward to strike the Pacific Northwest 4 days later. By the time the storm reached the US west coast, its winds had diminished to 50-60 mph (85-100km/h). No storm-related fatalities or injuries were reported, but power lines went down and transformers shorted out, leaving thousands of people in Washington and Oregon without electricity for a short period of time.

According to the meteorologists at the University of Washington, typhoons don’t hit the US mainland very often, but they can cause a lot of damage when they do. Seven of the most severe storms to hit the Seattle area over the years were attributed to typhoons. The most damaging was Typhoon Freda that struck the Washington coastline on Columbus Day, October 12, 1962. That storm packed wind speeds of 110 mph (185km/h). 50 people died in the storm and the wind flattened vast areas of forest.

The US being susceptible to both hurricanes and typhoons is reminiscent of the old story of the fighter who says, “If my right fist don’t getcha, my left one will.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Global Warming Info For Doubters

For those who still doubt or deny the existence of global warming, or who are not convinced that burning of fossil fuels is contributing to the heating of the planet, here are a few facts and figures* to consider:

Land Temperatures: 2016 marks the 40th consecutive year that the average global temperature has been above the 20th century average. The January-July 2016 global land surface temperature was 1.66°C (2.99°F) above the 20th century average. 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred since the year 2000.

Sea Surface Temperatures worldwide have mirrored the year-to-year increases in land temperatures. The January-July 2016 ocean surface temperatures were 0.79°C (1.42°F) above average, the warmest in the last 137 years.

Sea Level Rise has been slow but steady, having risen 7 inches (17.78cm) since 1900. The UN estimates an additional 2.5 to 6.0 foot sea level increase by 2100, depending on how rapidly the ice caps and glaciers melt. Some of the Marshall Islands and other low-lying atolls already have been vacated due to sea level rise. Miami has been flooding at high tide.

Ice Caps & Glaciers are melting and shrinking fast. The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing ice at the rate of 270 billion tons a year, and glaciers around the world lose another 400 billion tons each year. 

Ocean Acidification: The world’s oceans absorb a quarter of all CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning. When CO2 mixes with seawater, a chemical reaction increases the acid content of the water. Ocean acidity has increased 30% in the past 200 years, softening the shells of oysters, clams, and other calcifying species, threatening the world’s food chain, and eroding coral reefs. 

Increase of the CO2 Level in the atmosphere caused by the burning of oil, gas, and coal has increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) preindustrial, to over 400 ppm, creating a greenhouse effect that radiates heat back to earth.

Storms, Floods, & Droughts get more robust and last longer as the planet’s oceans, land, and air get hotter.

Snowpack Levels in mountain ranges throughout the world, including the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, the Alps, and the Himalayas are getting thinner and melting faster, providing less water to populations relying on the runoff.

Carbon Emissions into the atmosphere from the burning of oil, coal, and gas exceed 9.7 billion tons per year. 97% of publishing climate scientists around the world concur that the rapid increase in global warming is due, at least in part, to human activity, namely the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels. 200 worldwide scientific organizations hold that climate change has been caused by human action. Unfortunately, the heating of earth over the past 100 years indicates the planet will keep getting hotter until the burning of fossil fuels to run our cars and factories can be replaced by non-polluting alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar.

 *Data as reported by NASA, NOAA, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and as published in scientific journals.

A Tale of Two Earthquakes

On August 24, 2016, at 3:36 a.m. local time, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck Central Italy, taking 296 lives. On the same day, a few hours later at 5:06 p.m. local time, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake rattled the country of Myanmar, also known as Burma. While the magnitude was much stronger, only 4 people died in that quake even though many buildings were damaged and a priceless cultural heritage site destroyed.

The big differences? Geographical location, depth of the epicenter, and type of building construction.

The Central Italy quake hit near a densely populated area at a shallow depth of only 10km (6 mi.) under villages that still had very old stone and brick buildings never retrofitted to earthquake safe standards. The shallow quake, rated IX, or violent, on the intensity scale, shook the older buildings apart, burying almost 300 people in rubble as they slept. The town of Amatrice and surrounding villages were filled with tourists who had come for a festival that was to start that same day.

The Central Italy earthquake zone in the Apeninne Mountains, where three tectonic plates meet, is a complex area geologically. The Africa Plate is still converging (shoving into) the Eurasian Plate, while the Adriatic Plate is pulling away from the Eurasian Plate, creating a spreading zone down the Po Valley. When the pulling apart released long-stored fault line tension, one side of the fault line dropped suddenly, creating the shockwave.

The Myanmar quake epicenter was located in a thinly populated area of Central Burma, at a depth of 84km (52 mi). The maximum intensity of the quake was rated VI, or strong, but not severe or violent. As a result, a few buildings near the epicenter collapsed and others were damaged, but loss of life and major damage were held to a minimum.

This earthquake was located on a strike-slip fault line marking the convergence of the India Plate and the Eurasian Plate. The India Plate is moving briskly north in geological terms, against the Eurasian Plate moving slowly south. As the two plates bump together and try to slide past each other, horizontal stress builds up until some weaker point in the fault line gives way. The sudden release of tension causes sideways slippage triggering the shaking motion. This fault line is similar in structure to the San Andreas Fault that runs the length of California.

Whether an earthquake is caused by Normal Faulting as in Central Italy, or a strike-slip fault, or a megathrust that occurs in ocean trenches and can reach magnitude 9.0 and higher, the amount of resulting damage depends on what a real estate agent would call location location location.

 

 

Quiet US Hurricane Season — So Far

Four named tropical storms have developed so far during the 2016 hurricane season, but none have done major damage to US coastal cities.

On May 29, Tropical Storm Bonnie weakened to a tropical depression before making landfall near Charleston, South Carolina. Heavy rains associated with Bonnie caused local flooding and treacherous rip currents along the Southeast US coastline. One person drowned in North Carolina and another in Florida.

Tropical Storm Colin came ashore in the Big Bend area of Florida on June 7, triggering heavy rain and flash floods. 4 people drowned due to rip currents along the beaches of the Florida Panhandle.

On June 21, Tropical Storm Danielle with wind speeds of 45mph (75km/h} hit Veracruz, Mexico, closing the port and flooding areas, requiring the evacuation of 1,200 families.

Hurricane Earl struck Belize in Central America on August 4. Earl, with wind speeds of 80mph (130km/h), regenerated and hit Veracruz on August 6, where a landslide killed 3 people.

Colorado State University and NOAA both forecast an average hurricane year in 2016, made up of 12 to 15 named storms including 6 hurricanes. The two main factors leading this forecast of a near average season are the development of a weak La Niña and cooler than normal North Atlantic sea surface temperatures.

When and where the storms will make landfall is not part of the forecast. According to NOAA, historically 1 to 2 hurricanes come ashore in the US each season, although the number making US landfall has been below average for the last decade.

The hurricane season traditionally runs from June through November. However tropical storms can and have occurred in other months, some bringing heavy property damage and loss of life. As of this writing, there are still many weeks left in the 2016 hurricane season. Whether all or none of the remaining predicted storms will occur is up to Mother Nature. But just in case, those living on or near the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast should be prepared.

 

 

 

 

 

Record Heat & Renewable Energy

It should come as no surprise that the first half of 2016 has gone down as earth’s hottest 6 months on record.

According to a July, 2016, NOAA report on global temperatures, “Six record warm monthly global temperatures during the first half of 2016 resulted in the highest global land and ocean average temperature for January-June at 1.05°C (1.89°F) above the twentieth century average, besting the previous record set in 2015 by 0.20°C (0.36°F).” Arctic sea ice extent and thickness were the lowest on record in June, 2016.

Scientists agree that emissions into the atmosphere from the continued burning of coal, oil, and gasoline are main contributors to the dramatic increase in global temperatures. The question remains, is anyone doing anything about it?

The answer is yes. Renewable energy production in the US and EU keeps gaining in percentage of all energy produced year after year, but progress is slow. It takes time and major financial investment to build enough wind farms and solar arrays to replace the energy produced by billions of tons of coal and oil every year.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) reports that renewable energy sources at the end of 2015 accounted for 17.83% of total installed operating generating capacity in the United States, compared to 13.71% in 2010. During that 5-year period, coal’s share of US generating capacity dropped from 30.37% to 26.16%. FERC’s renewable energy sources are made up of hydro, wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal.

Many European countries are doing even better than the US in converting to renewable energy. Here are some examples of renewable energy’s percentage of total energy production: Denmark 66%, Portugal 30%, Germany 27%, Spain 24%, and Italy and the UK 23%. China has invested heavily in renewable energy, but still relies mainly on coal for energy production.

In the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, 196 nations agreed to reduce fossil fuel emissions and aim for totally eliminating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2050. Island nations threatened by sea level rise led the fight to reach this goal by 2050 instead of the originally agreed timetable of “the second half of the 21 century.” We hope the participating nations keep their word and accomplish the changeover from a fossil fuel world to a renewable energy world of clean air by century’s midpoint.

Earth’s Less Cloudy Future

Two recent scientific papers – one an analysis by NASA in May, 2016, the other a study by Scripps Institute of Oceanography in July, 2016, – confirm that earth’s cloud cover is gradually moving toward the north and south poles, cloud tops are rising higher into the atmosphere, and boundaries of the tropical zone are expanding.

 Clouds play a key role in heating and cooling the planet. When they are present, they reflect solar energy back into space, and shade the earth below. Without clouds, when skies are clear, solar energy beats down directly onto earth’s surface.

 The tropical zone currently runs from 30° south latitude to 30° north latitude. Cities on the 30° north latitude line are Cairo, Egypt, and Jacksonville Florida. As cloud cover moves toward the North Pole in the northern hemisphere, and the South Pole in the southern hemisphere, more and more of earth’s surface will fall within the tropical zone. Cities and farmland now in moderate climate zones will gradually be exposed to more sun, and become hotter and dryer.

The NASA analysis, led by scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, attribute the poleward shift of the clouds to major changes in air circulation relating to the expansion of the tropical zone.

 According to the Scripps study, “these findings confirm predictions from computer climate models that changes that took place during the last several decades were consequences of accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere generated by human populations.” The NASA study concurs.

 Fossil fuel emissions pump over 100 billions of tons of CO2 and other pollutants into our atmosphere every year, heating our planet, acidifying our oceans, and stripping away our cloud cover. All are good reasons to accelerate the change over from the carbon energy to renewable energy.

Author’s Note.

I’ve been sidelined with some health issues the past few weeks, and have not been able to post any new blogs. The natural world marched ahead without me during that time with earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador, floods in Texas, volcanic eruptions in the Aleutians, tornadoes in the South and Midwest, and a continuing drought in the US Southwest. As my stamina gradually returns, I plan to resume blogging from time to time on natural disasters and natural phenomena.

The main recent item of note has been the report that the South Pole Observatory in Antarctica has recorded a CO2 level of 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time. With that event, every reporting station in the world has now reached or exceeded the 400 ppm mark. The last time the planet’s atmosphere was that high in CO2 was 4 million years ago, according to an article published by the Guardian’s Climate Central dated June 16, 2016.

The burning of fossil fuels continues to elevate the amount of CO2 in the air, and continues to heat the planet. Since 1900, global temperature has risen 1.8°F (1.0°C), sea levels have increased by a foot (30cm). Since 1980, Arctic sea ice volume has decreased by 35%. Because much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere settles in the sea, the acidity of our oceans is the highest it has been in millions of years. Coral reefs are dying and some shellfish populations are dwindling.

We hope the Paris Accords in which all nations agreed to reduce carbon emissions, will be honored by all signatories, giving our planet a chance to have clean air and put the brakes on global warming.

 

Coastal Floods, Heat Waves & Health

As we humans continue to burn fossil fuels and pump 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, and as our planet continues its present warming trend, changes are taking place that will affect where we live and how we feel, according to two recently published studies.

The first study published on March 30, 2016, in the journal Nature, states that the massive Antarctic ice sheet could start melting and breaking up much sooner than projected by the UN Panel on Climate Change, potentially producing a 6 ft. (2m) sea level rise by 2100. The study by research scientists at University of Massachusetts and Penn State University compares today’s sea levels with those of two earlier warming periods in earth’s geologic history when temperatures and CO2 levels were about the same as present conditions. In those earlier episodes, one 150,000 years ago and the other about 3 million years ago, sea levels rose 20 to  30 ft. (6 to 9m) higher than they are now. Given that conditions are comparable, why are we not getting the same dramatic sea level rise now as the earth did then? That’s what the research sought to determine.

At the present time, the Antarctic ice sheet is melting slowly as the ocean water around it warms up and causes melting from below. What the study shows is that the big change will come from above, when the atmosphere warms enough to melt the floating ice that supports the edges of the ice sheet. When the floating ice melts, it will expose towering ice cliffs that will start collapsing under their own weight, triggering massive calving and the beginning of the rapid disintegration of the ice sheet. The researchers believe that because of the continued burning of fossil fuels, the air temperature tipping point is close at hand. Under this scenario, Miami, New Orleans, and other low-lying coastal cities would be submerged by the end of the century.

In a second study, scientists from eight federal agencies of the US government worked together to produce a 300-page report on the toll that global warming will take on human health and well being, if the pace of fossil fuel emissions is not severely curtailed. The study, released on April 4, 2016, projects increased death and disease totals from bigger and more prolonged extreme events such as floods, freezes, heat waves, dust storms, tornadoes, forest fires, and tropical storms.

Air quality will continue to worsen, causing increased fatalities and illness from lung and heart diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 3.7 million people die prematurely each year from breathing bad air. As the planet warms, the number of hot days will increase. Hot weather increases the amount of ground level ozone and small particulates in the air, both of which can obstruct lung function. Insect-borne diseases such as malaria will also increase as the climate warms and breeds more mosquitoes. Climate change will cause an uptick in number of people with mental health problems. More violent heat waves, floods, fires, and storms will put large populations under added stress.

The US study makes many of the same points as those contained in two 2015 studies by scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and The Lancet in the UK. All 3 studies emphasize that the death and disease projections will be greatly reduced when we clean the air by replacing carbon-based energy with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and thermal. The sooner the better, for everyone.

The Impact of Rising Seas

Ice caps are melting, ocean water is warming and expanding, and sea levels are rising. All scientific data, measurements, and models agree on these basic facts. Questions still remaining are how high will the seas rise, how fast will it happen, and what will the impact be on coastal communities?

Three recent studies shed some light on these questions. One study, published in the March 14, 2016, issue of Nature Climate Change, led by a University of Georgia demographer, predicts that up to 13.1 million people living in US coastal communities will be, by the year 2100, displaced by rising seas. The study estimates that with no protective measures, 4.9 million could be forced from the coast if seas rise 2.95 ft. (0.9m), and 13.1 million will have to vacate if seas rise 5.9 ft. (1.8m). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that sea levels will rise between 8 in. (0.3m) and 6.6 ft. (2m), depending on the speed and extent of polar ice melt. Both of the study’s scenarios fall within that range. The Southeastern US would be the area of greatest risk, with half the evacuations occurring in Florida.

Researchers at USGS published a paper in the same March 14 issue of Nature Climate Change stating that 70% of the northeast Atlantic coast has the capacity to change in response to rising seas: barrier islands may migrate inland and form protective dunes, new inlets may form. Tidal marshes can trap sediment and break down decaying plants into new soil, and build up the marshy terrain high enough to keep pace with sea level rise. This study predicts that most coastline communities from Virginia to Maine will not be submerged by sea level rise, but will adapt by forming natural barriers.

An article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Feb. 22, states that sea levels are rising at their fastest rate in 2,000 years. Measurements of past sea levels gathered at 24 sites around the world, and analysis of a 1.1-km (0.6 mi) core pulled from an Antarctic seabed, indicate that sea levels have been rising at a much faster rate in the past 100 years than at any time during the past 2 millennia. The seabed core analysis also shows that land-based ice sheets are vulnerable to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. In the past, the higher the parts-per-million of CO2, the faster the ice caps and glaciers melted. Currently, parts- per-million of CO2 register above 400, compared to the pre-industrial reading of 280. Millions of years ago, when hundreds of erupting volcanoes were changing the shape of the planet, parts-per-million spiked to 500, and ice sheets melted rapidly and retreated far inland. Ocean levels rose dramatically. If humans keep burning fossil fuels and pumping CO2 into the atmosphere at the present rate, a 500 ppm scenario could happen again.

Even with all the studies and climate models, no one knows for sure how fast these changes will take place. But if you live on or near the coastline, it’s best to help your community plan ahead for the changes that are sure to come.

 

 

 

Action On the Ring of Fire

The Ring of Fire, the 25,000 mile (40,000km) series of ocean trenches, volcanic arcs, and colliding tectonic plates fringing the Pacific Rim, from New Zealand to Chile, has 75% of the world’s active volcanoes, and produces 90% of the world’s earthquakes.

The first two months of 2016 have seen moderate activity on the Ring of Fire. Volcanoes in Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Indonesia continue to erupt at low to moderate levels. The Sinabung Volcano on Sumatra keeps extruding lava, with intermittent explosions that belch ash plumes up to 14,000 ft. (4,300m).

Two major earthquakes shook different parts of the Pacific Rim during this period. A Magnitude 7.1 quake hit Southeastern Alaska at 1:30 a.m. on January 24. The epicenter was 160 mi (260km) southwest of Anchorage at a depth of more than 40 miles. The shaking was strong enough to knock out power to 10,000, start gas leaks and fires, and cause moderate damage to roads and structures near the epicenter. The 1 fatality was attributed to a heart attack. If the quake had struck at a shallower depth, the jolt would have been stronger and the damage greater. The Aleutian Arc, where the Pacific Plate slides under the North American Plate, is a highly active seismic area. The second strongest earthquake on record, the Magnitude 9.3 Great Alaska Earthquake, struck in the same area on March 27, 1964.

On February 6, 2016, at 3:27 a.m., the island of Taiwan was hit by a Magnitude 6.4 earthquake. Though not as high a magnitude as the January 24 Alaska quake, the depth at 14mi (23km) was much shallower, and the shaking much more intense. The quake was ranked Intensity VII — Very Strong– on the Mercali Intensity Scale. Also, the epicenter was close to a high-density population center, and therefore much more destructive. Most of the 117 fatalities occurred when an apartment building collapsed and trapped the people living inside. Whether building code violations were involved is under investigation.

Tectonic plates constantly collide and build fault line stress. Volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis can and will strike anytime, anywhere along the always active Pacific Ring of Fire.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.