Natural Disasters 2013 Review

According to figures released by the German Reinsurer Munich Re, twice as many people died in natural disasters in 2013 than in the prior year, but property damage and insurance losses were significantly less.

Munich Re reports 880 natural disaster events in 2013, costing $125 billion in total losses, compared to $173 billion in 2012, and insured losses of $31 billion, about half the insured costs in the year before. However more than 20,000 people died in natural disasters in 2013, twice the number of deaths reported for 2012. Here are some of the most costly natural disasters of 2013, in either lives or property losses.

Earthquakes: Magnitude 7.0 to 7.7 quakes struck China in April, Pakistan in September, and the island of Bohol in the Philippines in October, killing 1,300 and destroying tens of thousands of homes. Damage amounts were not available.

Tornadoes: On May 20, an EF-5 tornado with a wind speed of 210 mph (340 km/h) ripped through the town of Moore, Oklahoma. The tornado, 1.3 miles (2km) wide, stayed on the ground for 40 minutes on a 17-mile (27km) path of destruction. 1150 homes were wiped out, 91 people died, including 7 children in a local school. Total damage was more than $2 billion.

Floods: Flooding in India, Central Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Colorado resulted in a combined death toll of 7,000 and damages exceeding $30 billion. European flooding was called the worst since the middle ages. Most of the deaths occurred in flash floods and landslides in the mountains of northern India and Nepal.

Meteor strike: A 13,000 ton meteor traveling at 60 times the speed of sound streaked into earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 15 and exploded in a fireball over the Caucuses region of Russia. The shock wave damaged 7,200 buildings and injured 1,500 people. The injuries were mainly from flying glass from blown-out windows. Fortunately, there were no reported deaths.

Wildfires: Brush fires in Australia and California scorched hundreds of thousands of acres. In October, Australian firefighters fought 66 brush fires along a line that stretched for 1,000 miles (1,650km). In California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Rim Fire that started in August was not put out till mid October, after burning 257,000 acres of heavily forested watershed.

Typhoons: Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines island of Leyte on November 8 with wind speed of 195 mph (320km/h), the strongest ever recorded for a tropical cyclone making landfall. A 20-ft (6m) tidal surge wiped out the city of Tacloban. More than 6,000 people lost their lives in the storm. Total cost has been estimated at up to $15 billion.

While the Pacific typhoon season was quite active, with 31 tropical storms, of which 13 were typhoons and 5 were super typhoons, the Atlantic hurricane season was much quieter than expected, with no major storms. The first few weeks of 2014 have also been relatively quiet, with the exception of the Mt. Sinabung volcano eruptions in Indonesia, during which 14 people have died and 20,000 have been evacuated.  Inevitably, there will be more natural disasters in the months ahead. We will have to wait and see what the rest of 2014 will bring.





Drought, Fire, & Flash Floods

In a 3-day period starting September 9, 2013, 18 inches (46cm) of rain drenched the Rocky Mountains Front Range, setting off flash floods that roared through Boulder, Lyons, Estes Park, and other Colorado foothill communities. A dozen dams overflowed and six blew out. Walls of water 20 ft. (500cm) high raced down canyons, sweeping away houses and stranding thousands of area residents. As of this writing, the flooding had taken 8 lives and destroyed 1,500 homes.

Average rainfall for the month of September in Boulder is 1.63 in. (3.45cm). So what were the conditions that caused 11 times that amount to fall in 3 days? Many scientists believe that climate change, forest fires, and the severe drought that has gripped the U.S. Southwest for 14 years all played a part.

To begin, a low-pressure center settled over the Great Basin and was held in place by a high-pressure ridge over the Pacific Northwest. The low pressure system tapped into a plume of monsoonal moisture coming up from the Pacific Ocean off Mexico. Since the low was stationary, it kept sucking in the monsoon moisture in a loop, like it was coming in on a conveyor belt. The storm dumped its deluge on the drought-dried Front Range with steep canyons running downhill from peaks exceeding 14,000 ft (4,300m).

Professor Brad Udall, director of University of Colorado’s Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, said that while current science can’t pin any particular extreme weather event to climate change, this flooding is likely a reflection of global warming.  Scientists have warned that as the planet warms,  drought and flash flooding will become more prevalent.

According to Sandra Postel, National Geographic’s Freshwater Fellow and noted authority on water use, the drought that has parched the area and gripped the Colorado River Basin for the past 14 years may be partly to blame for the severity of the floods. She said that drought hardens the soil, and when rains do come, the ground absorbs less water and quickly runs off the land.

Postel added that fires lead to worse flooding because they remove vegetation that can slow and trap rainfall. Hundreds of acres of Front Range forest were scorched by the Fourmile Canyon fire in 2010 and the Flagstaff fire in 2012. The burn area from those fires lies directly above the communities hit by the flash floods in September, 2013.

As our climate continues to warm, this same scenario will most likely be repeated in coming years in areas all over the world. Lengthy droughts, severe wildfires, record flooding, and more intense tropical storms are all expected to be part of our future climate menu.  

Emissions, Thunderstorms, & Climate Change

Smoke from wildfires in California and Colorado can make it hotter in Budapest. Isoprene, a naturally occurring hydrocarbon, rising in a summer mist from the forests of the Southeastern U.S., can damage the ozone layer that protects earth from harmful ultra violet radiation.

NASA’s Earth Science Division will employ three different aircraft and a fleet of satellites over the Southeastern U.S. this summer to collect data for a project called SEAC4RS, Studies of Emissions, Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys. Quite a mouthful, meaning the researchers will examine the process of how localized pollutants change the composition of thunderstorms and invade the upper atmosphere, and how that impacts the global climate cycle.

In a prior study conducted by scientists at NASA’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory in June, 2012, it was found that locally-occurring contaminants such as car exhaust, factory smoke, and methane from cow manure rise with heat updrafts into the clouds of summer thunderstorms.  Sucked up in the form of tiny aerosol particles, local pollutants mix with the water in the cloud when it condenses to form a thunderhead. The pollution then acts to divide the water droplets inside the storm cloud, making them too small to create rain.  Polluted storm clouds, instead of bringing cool rain, become heat traps, gradually reflecting stored heat back to earth.

In the new SEAC4RS study, earth’s atmosphere will be probed from top to bottom with aircraft, satellite, and ground-based sensors at the critical time of year when regional air pollution and natural emissions pump gases and particles high into the atmosphere, with potentially global consequences for Earth’s climate.

Brian Toon of the University of Colorado, the study’s lead scientist, states, “In summertime across the United States, emissions from seasonal fires, metropolitan areas, and vegetation are moved upward by thunderstorms and the North American Monsoon. When these chemicals get into the stratosphere, they can affect the whole Earth. They may also influence thunderstorm behavior. We hope to better understand how all these things interact.”

Data will be collected from specialized instruments on (1) a fleet of formation-flying satellites known as NASA’s A-Train, (2) an ER-2 high-altitude aircraft that flies to the edge of space, (3) a DC-8 flying at lower levels, and (4) a specialty aircraft that measures cloud properties. A network of ground-based sensors will also be used.

By analyzing the collected data, the scientists expect to achieve a more precise understanding of how manmade and natural pollutants affect global climate:  What happens when polluted clouds travel with a weather system? Which pollution particles are absorbed by clouds, and which go directly into the stratosphere, and in what amounts? What happens when the jet stream carries stratospheric pollution around the world? Knowing more about this process should help us find more and better ways to reduce emissions and slow the pace of global warming.

Tornadoes, Asteroids, & Wildfires

Recent events keep reminding us that disasters, natural and manmade, constantly happen on our planet, and, where possible, our scientists are working on ways to better control outcomes.

32.4 million people were forced to abandon their homes in 2012 by disasters such as floods, storms, and earthquakes. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that floods in India and Nigeria accounted for 41% of this total, but the United States also contributed a large percentage of displaced persons, mainly due to Superstorm Sandy that struck the U.S. East Coast in October.

Late spring is tornado season for Midwestern and southeastern U.S. On May 15, 2013, humid air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico combined with a layer of cooler air from the Mountain West and 100° temperatures to spawn 16 tornadoes that ripped through communities southwest of Dallas, Texas. 6 people died, 100 were injured, and more than 100 homes were badly damaged, some hit so hard that all that was left was the concrete slab they were built on. One tornado was judged an E4, with wind speed clocked at 200 mph (320 km/h). On May 19, new tornadoes and hailstorms struck in Oklahoma and Kansas, killing 2 people, and causing widespread property damage. More storms are expected.

Asteroid QE2 will miss Earth by 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers) when it sails by on May 31, 2013, but serves as a reminder that Near Earth Objects (NEOs) zip by us all the time. Occasionally one slips through and hits home, as did the small meteor that exploded over Russia on Feb. 15, 2013. The concussion blew out windows and injured hundreds  If another NEO does hit earth, let’s hope it’s smaller than QE2, which is 1.7 miles (2.7km) in length, or 9 times the size of the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2. Such a collision could be catastrophic. The QE2 designation has no relation to the cruise ship. It came up independently in NASA’s NEO numbering system.

According to a May, 2013, JPL news release, NASA will launch a robotic probe in 2016 to study one of the most hazardous of the known NEOs. NASA is also developing a project to capture and relocate an asteroid for human exploration. The mission will draw on the innovation of the brightest scientists and engineers.

Scientists from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and Chapman University in Orange, California, have partnered in a project using satellites to measure vegetation moisture and soil moisture in the Southern California mountains and foothills. Such measurements are now made by manually taking brush and soil samples for lab analysis. But using India’s Oceansat-2 satellite to measure soil moisture, and NASA’s Aqua Satellite to measure vegetation moisture content, the project team is able to advise local and regional fire agencies of the degree of fire risk much sooner and over a much wider area than is possible with manual measuring. 2013 has seen sparse rainfall and high temperatures in Southern California and much of the U.S. southwest, making the start of the wildfire season 2 to 3 months earlier than in the past.

A recent survey shows that 98% of the world’s scientific studies on the subject agree that burning fossil fuels is greatly accelerating the pace of global warming and the climate changes that bring more violent storms, longer droughts, more flooding, more wildfires, faster ice sheet and glacial melting, and more water and air pollution. The faster that governments, corporations, and individuals can act to speed up the transition from oil- and coal-generated power to non-polluting wind, solar, thermal, and vegetation-based power, the sooner climate change can be moderated and the better off we’ll be.

Extreme Weather Delivers 1-2 Punch

Wildfires in the west, and heat waves and severe windstorms in the east have made early summer, 2012, a devastating time for thousands of Americans.

Conditions leading to the wildfires in the mountains of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, and Colorado began with a La Niña winter, a condition that occurs when the sea surface temperature along the equator in the Central Pacific drops by 3 to 5°C (approximately 7 to 10° F). La Niñas historically bring drought conditions to the American Southwest, and the winter of 2012 was no exception. In fact, it was one of the driest on record. The snowpack in the Rockies was only 23% of normal, and the usual spring rains were scarce or nonexistent. Similar conditions existed in most other western mountain ranges. In addition to the lack of precipitation, a beetle infestation had turned millions of trees into deadwood, making western forests tinder dry. With record heat and gusting winds added to the mix, all it took was a lightning strike or a careless camper to start a blaze that roared out of control and eventually destroyed more than 200,000 acres of national forest, burned 1,500 homes, killed 2 people, and caused 30,000 residents to evacuate.

In the east, on June 29, 2012, a derecho windstorm knocked out electrical power to 3 million people. Derechos are straight-line windstorms that can exceed hurricane force, produced by fast-moving bands of thunderstorms that form in hot, humid weather. The derecho winds of June 29 exceeded 100 mph (160kph), snapped power poles, and damaged structures on a 700-mile track from Chicago to the Atlantic coast.  At the same time a record heat wave with temperatures exceeding 100° F (37°C) plus high humidity struck the Midwest, the eastern seaboard, and some southeastern states. Without power for air conditioning and refrigeration, there were hundreds of cases of heat exhaustion and at least 15 deaths attributed to the windstorms and excessive heat.

Whether global warming was a factor in these extreme events is not clear, but climate scientists believe they represent a taste of things to come. As world climate warms, heat waves will be hotter and more frequent, and will last longer. Water will be scarcer, and storms of all kinds will pack a bigger wallop.

Floods, Fires, & La Niña

During the spring and early summer of 2011, the U.S. Northern Plains states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri endured torrential rains, heavy snowmelt, swollen rivers, and near-record floods. During this same period, the south central and southwestern states were locked down in a 10-month-long drought, with record heat and massive wildfires. This split personality in the weather is largely attributable to La Niña, a climatic phase in which the equatorial Pacific Ocean turns cooler than normal, creating a weather pattern that sends heavy rain to the northern states and dry conditions to the U.S. southern tier.

Arizona and New Mexico wildfires. The Wallow fire in Arizona’s White Mountains burned for more than a month, blackening 866 square miles (2,240 square kilometers) (553,000 acres) (224,000 hectares) of national forest land before containment. High heat, strong winds, rugged terrain, and lack of rain made the blaze especially difficult to contain for the 1,300 firefighters on the line.

In neighboring New Mexico, the Las Conchas fire had burned 114,000 acres (46,000 hectares) of Santa Fe National Forest as it approached within 12 miles (20K) of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. More than 1,000 firefighters set up a containment line to keep the flames from reaching the nuclear facility’s waste storage area. A University of New Mexico geologist who studies the history of wildfires, stated that the behavior of southwestern firestorms in the last few decades “is at least as severe and maybe more so than anything we’ve seen since the last ice age.” Los Alamos Fire Chief Donald Tucker said, “We’ve seen fire behavior we’ve never seen down here, and it’s really aggressive.”

Texas drought. Texas has experienced the longest, most persistent drought in the state’s history. The entire state of Texas plus 32 counties in adjoining states were declared a disaster area by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Since August, 2010, the state had been plagued by heat, high winds, and lack of rain. Between November, 2010, and June, 2011, Texas wildfires had burned 3,300,000 acres (1,335,000 hectares). Parched grazing land forced ranchers to thin their herds by prematurely sending cattle to slaughter. Farmers throughout the state suffered extreme crop losses. One farmer said, “It’s so dry, the grass just crackles under my feet.” The June, 2011 high temperature recorded in one Texas city was 117F (47C). All farmers and ranchers in the disaster area are eligible to apply for aid from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

Missouri River flood. As heat and flame seared the southwest, the states in the northern plains fought to keep surging rivers from overflowing their banks. The 2010-2011 snowpack in the Rockies and other western mountain ranges was much heavier than normal, as was the spring runoff. Also, the stormy weather that brought tornadoes to some southern and Midwestern areas brought extremely heavy rain to the northern plains. The rain and runoff filled lakes and reservoirs to overflowing, and released extremely high volumes of water into the Missouri’s tributaries and into the river itself. The USDA estimated that the Missouri overflowed its banks and levees in several key places in Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri, inundating 550,000 acres of farmland, and submerging a number of rural homes and grain storage and processing facilities.

Souris River flood. The Souris is a Canadian river with its source in Saskatchewan. It runs west to east, dipping south through Minot, North Dakota, then looping back north into Canada to join the Assiniboine River that empties into Lake Winnipeg. The Souris’s volume increases dramatically as it runs south into North Dakota. In this wetter than normal year, the river at maximum flood stage crested 4 ft (1.2m) above a record set 130 years ago. 3,000 homes in Minot were flooded out and 12,000 people evacuated to higher ground.

The role of La Niña. Approximately every 5 years, the ocean water in the tropical Pacific around Australia and Indonesia warms or cools at least 0.5 degrees C (0.9 degrees F). When it turns warmer, the condition is called El Niño. When it cools, it is a La Niña condition. This warming or cooling of the tropical ocean is accompanied by an atmospheric change in the western Pacific called the Southern Oscillation. High pressure sets in during an El Niño, and low pressure during La Niña. The combination of El Niño/La Niña and the Southern Oscillation is referred to as ENSO.

Mainly, El Niño/La Niña conditions impact the weather in countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. During La Niña, South America experiences drought conditions, and Australia and Asia very wet conditions. In the past, La Niñas have lasted 6 to 9 months. In recent years, they have been stronger and lasted longer. The current La Niña that has been the cause of the northern flooding and southern fires and droughts began in May, 2010, and lasted till June, 2011, at which point it began to weaken, but the damage had been done.

Typically, during a La Niña, Western Canada, the Pacific Northwest, Northern California, and the northern Midwestern states have above-average precipitation, while the southwestern and southeastern states have below-average precipitation. This time, the north was excessively wet and cool while the south was excessively dry and hot, indicating that these phases are hitting harder and lasting longer. Some scientists attribute this to global warming, but that is still under study. Also under study are the mechanics of the phenomena. Meteorologists, oceanographers, and other disciplines know what ENSO does, but can’t yet fully explain exactly why it does what it does.

If ENSO behaves as it has in the past, there will be a period of “normal” weather, during which ENSO will not be a factor. That will be followed by an El Niño, when conditions reverse. The northern tier will experience drier than normal conditions, and the southern tier will be wetter than normal.

The 2010-2011 La Niña produced a series of natural disasters while in full sway, including fires, droughts, tornadoes, and floods that killed hundreds and displaced thousands. Most people will be glad to see it go.