New Research on Assessing Climate Change Impact on Extreme Weather

Three statisticians go hunting for rabbit. They see a rabbit. The first statistician fires and misses, her bullet striking the ground below the beast. The second statistician fires and misses, their bullet striking a branch above the lagomorph. The third statistician, a lazy frequentist, says, “We got it!”

OK, that joke was not 1/5th as funny as any of XKCD’s excellent jabs at the frequentist-bayesian debate, but hopefully this will warm you up for a somewhat technical discussion on how to decide if observations about the weather are at all explainable with reference to climate change.

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We are having this discussion here and now for two reasons. One is that Hurricane Harvey was (is) a very serious weather event in Texas and Louisiana that may have been made worse by the effects of anthropogenic global warming, and there may be another really nasty hurricane coming (Irma). The other is that Michael Mann, Elisabeth Lloyd and Naomi Oreskes have just published a paper that examines so-called frequentist vs so-called Bayesian statistical approaches to the question of attributing weather observations to climate change.

Mann, Michael, ElisabethLloyd, Naomi Oreskes. 2017. Assessing climate change impacts on extreme weather events; the case for an alternative (Baesian) approach. Climate Change (2017) 144:131-142.

First, I’ll give you the abstract of the paper then I’ll give you my version of how these approaches are different, and why I’m sure the authors are correct.

The conventional approach to detecting and attributing climate change impacts on
extreme weather events is generally based on frequentist statistical inference wherein a null hypothesis of no influence is assumed, and the alternative hypothesis of an influence is accepted only when the null hypothesis can be rejected at a sufficiently high (e.g., 95% or Bp = 0.05^) level of confidence. Using a simple conceptual model for the occurrence of extreme weather events, we
show that if the objective is to minimize forecast error, an alternative approach wherein likelihoods
of impact are continually updated as data become available is preferable. Using a simple proof-of-concept, we show that such an approach will, under rather general assumptions, yield more
accurate forecasts. We also argue that such an approach will better serve society, in providing a
more effective means to alert decision-makers to potential and unfolding harms and avoid
opportunity costs. In short, a Bayesian approach is preferable, both empirically and ethically.

Frequentist statistics is what you learned in your statistics class, if you are not an actual statistician. I want to know if using Magic Plant Dust on my tomatoes produces more tomatoes. So, I divide my tomato patch in half, and put a certain amount of Magic Plant Dust on one half. I then keep records of how many tomatoes, and of what mass, the plants yield. I can calculate the number of tomatoes and the mass of the tomatoes for each plant, and use the average and variation I observe for each group to get two sets of numbers. My ‘null hypothesis’ is that adding the magic dust has no effect. Therefore, the resulting tomato yield from the treated plants should be the statistically the same as from the untreated plants. I can pick any of a small number of statistical tools, all of which are doing about the same thing, to come up with a test statistic and a “p-value” that allows me to make some kind of standard statement like “the treated plants produced more tomatoes” and to claim that the result is statistically significant.

If the difference, though, is very small, I might not get a good statistical result. So, maybe I do the same thing for ten years in a row. Then, I have repeated the experiment ten times, so my statistics will be more powerful and I can be more certain of an inference. Over time, I get sufficient sample sizes. Eventually I conclude that Magic Plant Dust might have a small effect on the plants, but not every year, maybe because other factors are more important, like how much water they get or the effects of tomato moth caterpillars.

In an alternative Bayesian universe, prior to collecting any data on plant growth, I do something very non-statistical. I read the product label. The label says, “This product contains no active ingredients. Will not affect tomato plants. This product is only for use as a party favor and has no purpose.”

Now, I have what a Bayesian statistician would call a “prior.” I have information that could be used, if I am clever, to produce a statistical model of the likely outcome of the planned experiments. In this case, the likely outcome is that there won’t be a change.

Part of the Bayesian approach is to employ a statistical technique based on Bayes Theorem to incorporate a priori assumptions or belief and new observations to reach towards a conclusion.

In my view, the Bayesian approach is very useful in situations where we have well understood and hopefully multiple links between one or more systems and the system we are interested in. We may not know all the details that relate observed variation in one system and observed variation in another, but we know that there is a link, that it should be observable, and perhaps we know the directionality or magnitude of the effect.

The relationship between climate change and floods serves as an example. Anthropogenic climate change has resulted in warmer sea surface temperatures and warmer air. It would be very hard to make an argument from the physics of the atmosphere that this does not mean that more water vapor will be carried by the air. If there is more water vapor in the air, there is likely to be more rain. Taken as a Bayesian prior, the heating of the Earth’s surface means more of the conditions that would result in floods, even if the details of when, how much, and where are vague at this level.

A less certain but increasingly appreciated effect of climate change is the way trade winds and the jet stream move around the planet. Without going into details, climate change over the last decade or two has probably made it more likely that large storm systems stall. Storms that may have moved quickly through an area are now observed to slow down. If a storm will normally drop one inch of rain on the landscape over which it passes, but now slows down but rains at the same rate, perhaps 3 inches of rain will be dropped (over a shorter distance). What would have been a good watering of all the lawns is now a localized flood.

That is also potentially a Bayesian prior. Of special importance is that these two Bayesian priors imply change in the same direction. Since in this thought experiment we are thinking about floods, we can see that these two prior assumptions together suggest that a post-climate change weather would include more rain falling from the sky in specific areas.

There are other climate change related factors that suggest increased activity of storms. The atmosphere should have more energy, thus more energetic storms. In some places there should more of the kind of wind patterns that spin up certain kinds of storms. It is possible that the relationship between temperature of the air at different altitudes, up through the troposphere and into the lower stratosphere, has changed so that large storms are likely to get larger than they otherwise might.

There is very little about climate change that implies the reverse; Though there may be a few subsets of storm related weather that would be reduced with global warming, most changes are expected to result in more storminess, more storms, more severe storms, or something.

So now we have the question, has climate change caused any kind of increase in storminess?

I’d like to stipulate that there was a kind of turning point in our climate around 1979, before which we had a couple of decades of storminess being at a certain level, and after which, we have a potentially different level. This is also a turning point in measured surface heat. In, say, 1970 plus or minus a decade, it was possible to argue that global warming is likely but given the observations and data at the time, it was hard to point to much change (though we now know, looking back with better data for the previous centuries, that is was actually observable). But, in 2008, plus or minus a decade, it was possible to point to widespread if anecdotal evidence of changes in storm frequency, patterns, effects, as well as other climate change effects, not the least of which was simply heat.

I recently watched the documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel.” This is a fairly misunderstood film. It is not really part two of Al Gore’s original “An Inconvenient Truth.” The latter was really Al Gore’s argument about climate change, essentially presented by him. “An Inconvenient Sequel” was made by independent film makers with no direct input by Gore with respect to contents and production, though it is mostly about him, him talking, him making his point, etc. But I digress. Here is the salient fact associated with these two movies.An Inconvenient Truth came out in May 2006, so it is based mainly on information available in 2005 and before. In it, there are examples of major climate change effects, including Katrina, but it seems like the total range of effects is more or less explicated almost completely. When An Inconvenient Sequell came out a few weeks ago, a solid 10+ years had passed and the list of actual climate effects noted in the movie was a sampling, not anything close to a full explication, of the things that had happened over recent years. Dozens of major flooding, storming, drying, and deadly heat events had occurred of which only a few of each were mentioned, because there was just so much stuff.

My point is that there is a reasonable hypothesis based on anecdotal observation (at least) that many aspects of weather in the current decade, or the last 20 years, or since 1979 as I prefer, are different in frequency and/or severity than before, because of climate change.

A frequentist approach does not care why I think a certain hypothesis is workable. I could say “I hypothesize that flies can spontaneously vanish with a half life of 29 minutes” and I could say “I hypothesis that if a fly lays eggs on a strawberry there will later be an average of 112 maggots.” The same statistical tests will be usable, the same philosophy of statistics will be applied.

A Bayesian approach doesn’t technically care what I think either, but what I think a priori is actually relevant to the analysis. I might for example know that the average fly lays 11 percent of her body mass in one laying of eggs, and that is enough egg mass to produce about 90-130 maggots (I am totally making this up) so that observational results that are really small (like five maggots) or really large (like 1 million maggots) are very unlikely a priori, and, results between 90 and 130 are a priori very likely.

So, technically, a Bayesian approach is different because it includes something that might be called common sense, but really, is an observationally derived statistical parameter that is taken very seriously by the statistic itself. But, philosophically, it is a little like the pitcher of beer test.

I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll refresh your memory. Consider an observation that makes total sense based on reasonable prior thinking, but the standard frequentist approach fails to reject the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis is that there are more tornadoes from, say, 1970 to the present than there were between 1950 and 1970. This graph suggests this is true…

… but because the techniques of observation and measuring tornado frequency have changed over time, nobody believes the graph to be good data. But, it may not be bad data. In other words, the questions about the graph do not inform us of the hypothesis, but the graph is suggestive.

So, I take a half dozen meteorologists who are over 55 years old (so they’ve seen things, done things) out for a beer. The server is about to take our order, and I interrupt. I ask all the meteorologists to answer the question … using this graph and whatever else you know, are there more tornadoes in the later time interval or not? Write your answer down on this piece of paper, I say, and don’t share your results. But, when we tally them up, if and only if you all have the same exact answer (all “yes” or all “no”) then this pitcher of beer is on me.

Those are quasi-Bayesian conditions (given that these potential beer drinkers have priors in their heads already, and that the graph is suggestive if not conclusive), but more importantly, there is free beer at stake.

They will all say “yes” and there will be free beer.

OK, back to the paper.

Following the basic contrast between frequentist and Bayesian approaches, the authors produce competing models, one based on the former, the other on the latter. “In the conventional, frequentist approach to detection and attribution, we adopt a null hypothesis of an equal probability of active and inactive years … We reject it in favor of the alternative hypothesis of a bias toward more active years … only when we are able to achieve rejection of H0 at a high… level of confidence”

In the bayesian version, a probability distribution that assumes a positive (one directional) effect on the weather is incorporated, as noted above, using Bayes theorem.

Both methods work to show that there is a link between climate change and effect, in this modeled scenario, eventually, but the frequentist approach is very much more conservative and thus, until the process is loaded up with a lot of data, more likely to be wrong, while the bayesian approach correctly identifies the relationship and does so more efficiently.

The authors argue that the bayesian method is more likely to accurately detect the link between cause and effect, and this is almost certainly correct.

This is what this looks like: Frank Frequency, weather commenter on CNN says, “We can’t attribute Hurricane Harvey, or really, any hurricane, to climate change until we have much more data and that may take 100 years because the average number of Atlantic hurricanes to make landfall is only about two per year.”

Barbara Bayes, weather commenter on MSNBC, says, “What we know about the physics of the atmosphere tells us to expect increased rainfall, and increased energy in storms, because of global warming, so when we see a hurricane like Harvey it is really impossible to separate out this prior knowledge when we are explaining the storms heavy rainfall and rapid strengthening. The fact that everywhere we can measure possible climate change effects on storms, the storms seem to be acting as expected under climate change, makes this link very likely.”

I hasten to add that this paper is not about hurricanes, or severe weather per se, but rather, on what statistical philosophy is better for investigating claims linking climate change and weather. I asked the paper’s lead author, Michael Mann (author of The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, and Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change), about Hurricane Harvey specifically. He told me, “As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, I’m not particularly fond of the standard detection & attribution approach for an event like Hurricane Harvey for a number of reasons. First of all, the question isn’t whether or not climate change made Harvey happen, but how it modified the impacts of Harvey. For one thing, climate change-related Sea Level Rise was an important factor here, increasing the storm surge by at least half a foot.” Mann recalls the approach taken by climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, who “talks about how warmer sea surface temperatures mean more moisture in the atmosphere (about 7% per degree C) and more rainfall. That’s basic physics and thermodynamics we can be quite certain of.”

The authors go a step farther, in that they argue that there is an ethical consideration at hand. In a sense, an observer or commenter can decide to become a frequentist, and even one with a penchant for very low p-values, with the purpose of writing off the effects of climate change. (They don’t say that but this is a clear implication, to me.) We see this all the time, and it is in fact a common theme in the nefarious politicization of the climate change crisis.

Or, an observer can chose to pay attention to the rather well developed priors, the science that provides several pathways linking climate change and severe weather or other effects, and then, using an appropriate statistical approach … the one you use when you know stuff … be more likely to make a reasonable and intelligent evaluation, and to get on to the business of finding out in more detail how, when, where, and how much each of these effects has taken hold or will take hold.

The authors state that one “… might therefore argue that scientists should err on the side of caution and take steps to ensure that we are not underestimating climate risk and/or underestimating the human component of observed changes. Yet, as several workers have shown …the opposite is the case in prevailing practice. Available evidence shows a tendency among climate scientists to underestimate key parameters of anthropogenic climate change, and thus, implicitly, to understate the risks related to that change”

While I was in contact with Dr. Mann, I asked him another question. His group at Penn State makes an annual prediction of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, and of the several different such annual stabs at this problem, the PSU group tends to do pretty well. So, I asked him how this season seemed to be going, which partly requires reference to the Pacific weather pattern ENSO (El Nino etc). He told me

We are ENSO neutral but have very warm conditions in the main development region of the Tropcs (which is a major reason that Irma is currently intensifying so rapidly). Based on those attributes, we predicted before the start of the season (in May) that there would be between 11 and 20 storms with a best estimate of 15 named storms. We are currently near the half-way point of the Atlantic hurricane season, and with Irma have reached 9 named storms, with another potentially to form in the Gulf over the next several days. So I suspect when
all is said and done, the total will be toward the upper end of our predicted range.

I should point out that Bayesian statistics are not new, just not as standard as one might expect, partly because, historically, this method has been hard to compute. So, frequency based methods have decades of a head start, and statistical methodology tends to evolve slowly.

Hurricane Irma: Important changes in intensity, changes in track

UPDATE Sept 9, AM

Note that tropical storm force winds may start hitting southern Florida around 1 or 2 PM today, Saturday, and will reach central Florida by about 8AM Sunday.

The eye of the storm should be abreast southern Florida at around sunup on Sunday. The storm may remain a major hurricane as it moves all along the west coast, reaching south of Tallahasse, still as a major hurricane, Monday morning.

Irma has interacted with Cuba more than previously expected. The storm also seems likely to move farther west than previously expected.

Moving over very warm waters over the next several hours will strengthen the storm. If it does move along the west coast of Florida the focus now shifts to different communities, such as the Cape Coral / Fort Myers area.

As a rule, storm surge risks on the west coast are greater than the east coast. The west coast has a broader shallow shelf, and since the hurricanes rotate counter clockwise, there is a greater chance of a direct hit. Correspondingly, the following storm surge map (most current version HERE), which has inundation of over 9 feet if conditions pertain in a given spot, is what we should be paying attention to:

It also seems to me that the keys are in more danger with this track than with the central track.

Here is a reasonable likely scenario, WHICH IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE based on current consensus.

Over-simply put, there are two things that determine the future location of a hurricane. One is the simple long distance movement of the major air mass that is our lower atmosphere. The hurricane is like a cork floating along in a stream. If the stream flow is steady and straight, the cork will be just down stream from where it is now, moving alongat an easily discernible rate, so the distance over a fixed time interval is easy to calculate.

The other factor is all the other stuff. The complex movement of other low pressure systems and ridges of high pressure, all that. The land and the ocean have their own things going with respect mainly to high and low pressure, so as a hurricane moves from being out at sea to being on or near land, these interactions grow increasingly complex. Over the next several hours, this second factor (everything else) takes over and this is where the prediction gets complicated. How much exactly will the storm change its angle of movement, and exactly at what hour will that occur and how long will it take?

So, the tack above looks pretty solid but it may in face be off by a hundred miles or even more before the storm is abreast of southern Florida. That difference will make all the difference in the world.

Update based on NWS advisory Sept 7, late PM

A Hurricane Warning is in effect for…
* Dominican Republic from Cabo Frances Viejo to the northern border
with Haiti
* Haiti from the northern border with the Dominican Republic to Le
Mole St. Nicholas
* Southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands
* Cuban provinces of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, and
Villa Clara
* Central Bahamas
* Northwestern Bahamas

Maximum sustained winds remain near 175 mph (280 km/h) with higher
gusts. Irma is a category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson
Hurricane Wind Scale. Some fluctuations in intensity are likely
during the next day or two, but Irma is forecast to remain a
powerful category 4 or 5 hurricane during the next couple of days.

Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 70 miles (110 km) from
the center, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 185
miles (295 km).

The combination of a life-threatening storm surge and large breaking
waves will raise water levels ABOVE NORMAL TIDE LEVELS by the
following amounts within the hurricane warning area near and to the
north of the center of Irma. Near the coast, the surge will be
accompanied by large and destructive waves.

Turks and Caicos Islands…15 to 20 ft
Southeastern and central Bahamas…15 to 20 ft
Northwestern Bahamas…5 to 10 ft
Northern coast of the Dominican Republic…3 to 5 ft
Northern coast of Haiti and the Gulf of Gonave…1 to 3 ft
Northern coast of Cuba in the warning area…5 to 10 ft

RAINFALL: Irma is expected to produce the following rain
accumulations through Saturday evening:

Northeast Puerto Rico and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands…
Much of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos…8 to 12 inches, isolated
20 inches
Andros Island and Bimini, Bahamas…12 to 16 inches, isolated 25
inches
Northern Dominican Republic and northern Haiti…4 to 10 inches,
isolated 15 inches
Southern Dominican Republic and southern Haiti…2 to 5 inches
Eastern and central Cuba…4 to 10 inches, isolated 15 inches
Southeast Florida and the upper Florida Keys…8 to 12 inches,
isolated 20 inches
Lower Florida Keys…2 to 5 inches

Update Sept 7, PM

Everything I said in the last post applies now except the chances of the storm making landfall on the Florida Peninsula, and even the chances of a fairly direct hit on Miami and surrounding areas, is much higher than it was this morning. But we are still talking about something that will happen in the middle of the weekend, and this is still Thursday.

Also, repeating, note that if this storm makes landfall at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, it is expected to move north very quickly (about twidce as fast as it is moving now) and reach southern Georgia WHILE STILL BEING A HURRICANE. A land hurricane, if you will. Except of course huge parts of it will be handing out over the very warm Atlantic.

I heard a guy on the news today saying the only ticket he could get out of Florida was a one way flight to Memphis. The hurricane will be in the vicinity of Memphis, or at least central Tennessee/Kentucky, Tuesday. It will be a big wet storm at that time, but that is an area that floods so take it seriously.

This might be a good time to read this post if you haven’t already: Hurricane Landfall: What is it and don’t be stupid about it.
Update Sept 7, Mid Day

Storm surge watches have now been issued for South Florida. The experimental storm surge system of NWS suggests storm surges of up to 6 feet or so in a few places. But, the details of where storm surges may happen and how high they might be will probably sharpen a great day between now and Friday late PM.

Mean while, do the same with storm surge information as I asked you to do with the overall Hurricane information below. Recognize how this information is produced and what it means. There will NOT be a storm surge of the maximum amount indicate on the maps in all the areas covered by the map. The way to use the map is this: If you are in a particular spot with a possible storms surge, the map tells you your local worst case scenario, the scenario you should be prepared for even though something less is probably what is going to happen. If you assume less will happen and are washed out to sea and never seen again, don’t come complaining to me, because that is NOT what I said. If you are in a place where it says 6 foot surge, and you get a 3 foot surge, that is normal. Hopefully, though, you are no where hear the south Florida coast, right?

You can see the storm surge maps here.

Update Sept 7 AM

I want you to look at this graphic and understand its meaning:

There is about a 70% chance that the CENTER of Irma (the eye, approximately but not exactly) will remain between the two blue lines between midnight Saturday and midnight Sunday as it first interacts with Florida. In other words, between those two “m” markers. So, you have to start out by imagining the hurricane’s eye in the Gulf over by Cape Coral, and think about that for a moment. Then, you have to imagine the eye out near Freeport and think about that for a moment. With each of these scenarios, understand that the Miami and Miami Beech area is in a bad storm, windy, lots of rain, probably flooding, etc. but not Houston and not Andrew.

Now, look at the black line with the “M” markers on it. As you move from either blue line towards the black line, there is an increasing chance of the center of the storm being there. It is a bell curve, where the high point of the curve holds that black line. So there is a better chance that the center of the storm will be near Miami than Tampa or Freeport.

Now let’ consider the structure of the storm itself. Catastrophic sustained winds and gusts extend out from the center of the storm about the same width ad Florida itself, but as the storm approaches Florida it will weaken. The strongest wind and most severe storm tides are in the front right quadrant. So, if the storm comes on land in Florida along the southwest tip of the peninsula, that front right punch is going to only graze Miami but will obviously be very meaningful in the keys and everglades. If the center of the storm passes to the right of Miami about the same distance, perhaps Grand Bahama is toast, but Miami and Miami Beech is hit hard but it is a mere bad disaster.

What are the chances that the storm will essentially ride this black line all the way? Low. Maybe 10% chance. But if it does, or does something close to that, what happens?

There are three things to know, one of which I’ve already mentioned. That is that the front right is the most important part of the storm. So, if the storm is close to riding the line, but off to the right 10 miles, that is hugely different from if the storm is close to riding the line but off to the left 10 miles. The difference is in the survival of this urban area, potentially.

Second: Note that there is an M on the track south of Miami, and another one north quite a distance. The lower M corresponds to sustained winds of about 150mph, the upper M to sustained winds of 120 mph. So, as the storm moves over the area, it will weaken but it will be very strong anyway.

Third: The shape of the coastline, as discussed and depicted below, in an earlier update, means that the storm surge coming up into the Miami Beach area could be very high. The Hurricane Prediction Center has not posted storm surge estimates at this time, but depending on the exact path of the storm there could be many many feet of flooding over a very large area in and around Miami.

Or, again, the storm may be nothing more than a bad day for the Magic City. Remember that. We still do not know.

Beyond this, there is other complex bad news. Even if Irma scrapes the Atlantic coast of Florida, it may remain a hurricane all the way up to the Carolinas. If it misses Florida, it may go north and then hit the Carolinas with more force. Or it could go into the gulf, or miss everything. Still too early to tell, but Florida looks to be in some sort of trouble.

Remember, mainly, that despite what the news agencies are saying, there is currently no valid prediction of what Irma will do over the weekend. So, if it does something that you were not expecting, that’s you. You don’t get to say “but they said yada yada” because they are saying nothing more specific than the vague and rambling things I said above.

Update Sept 6, late AM

Just hours after the NWS five day put Irma dead in the middle of Florida’s south coast, the newest estimate is quite different. I point this out to underscore what I’ve been saying all along (and I hope you have not been ignoring): Five days out is too far to be accurate. Look:

Update Sept 6, AM

I keep seeing news phrases like “Irma has Puerto Rico in her sights.” Puerto Rico will have some very bad weather, but the main path of the storm has never crossed the island, and there is probably a less than 10% chance of a direct hit there, or less. The small islands of the northern Leewards have been hit directly or close to it, and more are in trouble. It seems most likely that the first larger body of land Irma might strike is Cuba, which has is almost entirely within the cone of probability, but south of the central line of expected movement. If the storm interacts a lot with Cuba, or turns into the island nation, that will be bad for Cuba, and Irma will weaken considerably. Meanwhile, the Bahamas and islands between Irma and the Bahamas are likely to get hit hard.

The more accurate three day forecast puts Irma as a Major Hurricane between Cuba and the Bahamas, or hitting Cuba or the Bahamas. The much less reliable five day forecast has Irma then curving north and striking the very tip of Florida and moving, as a major hurricane, onto the peninsula.

However, as a target, Florida is small compared to the cone of uncertainty Look:

Given this, it is distinctly possible that Irma will pass to the right (east) of Florida and head up the Atlantic. If that happens, it may then strike the mainland somewhere else, or not. Or, given this probability map, it is possible that Irma will pass to the left (west, gulf-side) of Florida, and go into the Gulf, then it will be pretty much impossible for the hurricane to not hit something.

The fact that the middle of this forecast graph is centered on Florida does not mean that it is more likely that the storm will hit Florida head on than not, given the wide margin of error and the relative narrowness of the state from this angle. I am emphasizing this because I don’t want to hear any bellyaching later if Irma skips Florida and hits Louisiana or South Carolina or something.

Either way, Irma is expected to be making whatever northerly turn it is going to make during the night time hours between Saturday and Sunday, and the current (but too far out to be certain of) projection is that Irma will be a Category 4 hurricane at that time. By Sunday night, Irma will have hit Florida, dead on, or not, and is expected to be a Category 3 hurricane on land and inland a ways, if that happens. In other words, worst case scenario includes southern Florida suffering a major hurricane for over 24 hours straight.

It has been said over and over again that the real risk of death in a hurricane is inland flooding that often happens after the hurricane has come ashore, and not so much from the coastal flooding and the winds. I’m not going to exactly dispute that but I want to complexify it a bit. If we count all the hurricane dead in the US, the most people who have died of hurricane effects were killed in the coastal storm surge of one single storm. That is not an outlier in the classic sense (i.e., a number that is so out of whack that something must be wrong with the number). It is a real number but an extreme one, however, and meaningful averages should probably ignore it.

But I bring this up now because it might be that a catastrophic hurricane will come ashore in an area where a lot of people live on low ground. There could be a storms surge that is substantial relative to the topography, and there could be winds strong enough to flatten homes and buildings and, generally, structures previously thought to be storm shelters. In other words, a worst case version of Irma would have a deadly storm surge and a deadly wind, more so than Atlantic hurricanes tend to have. Then, of course, the inland flooding as well, maybe quite substantial.

Storm surges are more extreme when there is focusing terrain, like a bay flanked by high hills leading to a town or city. In such environments, however, the storm itself is likely to suffer attrition from the nearby mountainous topography. In the case of Florida, the good news is that there are not hill flanked embayments, and the bad news is that florida is as flat as a pancake, so the storm will not be reduced from that sort of friction.

There are some potentially very uncomfortable scenarios. Look at a map of the Miami and Everglades area.

Now imagine a counter-clockwise spinning storm, centered close to the very southern tip of the state. Besides sweeping high winds along teh keys, it may also force a storm surge up the lagoonish area west of Key Largo, up into the northern part of Biscayne Bay, and right up into the waterways of Miami. I would not want to be on Dodge Island if that comes through. Also, northern Biscayne Bay could be flooded and the outlets to the south blocked, so any of several smaller low spots or outlets in Miami Beach may volunteer to be the new channel connecting the bay to the sea. That would be locally very very bad.

Miami is thought to be less vulnerable to storm surge than other cities, because the sea deepens fairly quickly off shore, which decreased the amount of surge that is possible. But, this particular hurricane, coming from the south and being large, obviates that benefit because the storm surge could be coming through the zone behind the Keys, which is very very shallow. Even if Miami itself is spared, the areas around the keys themselves, and the everglades, are pretty vulnerable.

Or, Irma may do nothing like this, and go somewhere else. We’ll soon find out.

Update Sept 5, evening

In the fairly current infrared image below, Irma is clearly bearing down on some land masses. The twin (double) blobs south of the eye just being engulfed by read is Guadeloupe, and the largish two islands south of that are Dominca and Martinique. The several tiny dots right in the path of the eye or near it are Antiqua and Barbuda, Monserrat, St Kits & Nevis, and Anguilla. You probably recognize Puerto Rico; the tiny dots in the blue specked area between Puerto Rico and Irma are the British and US Virgin Islands.

These island are on the elbow of an ark that runs from Grenada to the Greater Antilles. This mostly volcanic island arc, rimming a small continental plate, would be a large arm of much more land and much less sea during low sea level stands of the Pleistocene.

(I just thought I’d mention that because you probably want to know some things about these islands that are about to get blottoed.)

It is still too early to predict what Irma will do when it is nearing the end of its path along the Greater Antilles and Leeward Islands, i.e., when it is nearer the US mainland. To give you an idea of how uncertain all this is, the average of all the models had Irma striking Florida at the end of the peninsula, but now, hours later, there are other models that tend to be pretty reliable showing Irma not hitting Florida at all, and rather, striking land in the Carolina region.

What this means is this: If you are in Florida and preparing for a hurricane, continue to prepare. If you are in South Carolina and thought you dodged a bullet on this one, don’t assume that.

The one thing we are 70% sure of: Late PM on Friday, Irma will be somewhere between eastern Cuba and the Bahamas. Probably. But possibly not.

Update Sept 5, mid day

We have been back and forth on Irma all along, with the possibility of a landfall in the US being very uncertain.

I’m here to tell you that it is still uncertain. There are still some models that show the storm curving north and becoming one with the Atlantic.

However, most models are showing Irma hitting the continental US, and of those, Florida seems to be a favorite spot.

Several models indicate that Irma will interact with Cuba before heading north and running into Florida. It will not cross Cuba on the way north, but rather, veer into Cuba from the North and maybe not even make eyewall landfall there. It is hard to say what this will do but likely the storm will weaken before hitting Florida.

Also, generally, reports of the storm’s strength are exaggerated. It is now a very powerful storm and it could become more powerful but there is almost no way Irma will not decrease in strength, down to a Category 3 or even Category 2 before hitting the US, if it hits the US. There are reasons that Atlantic hurricanes are not as big, not as powerful, and not as persistent as many Pacific storm, and those reasons have not applied to the storm in recent days, but will start applying to the storm now and onward.

Nonetheless, it is very likely true that somewhere in the US there will be a serious hurricane, possibly a major hurricane, hitting something.

Meanwhile Irma is starting to impact land and will continue to do so for several days, mainly on islands.

So, here is a reasonably likely scenario for the next several days, in DECREASING order of certainty as you go down the list.

1) Certainly: Irma is at the moment impressing the heck out of weather watchers. It has a very clear and distinct eye with interesting features. The winds are very very high, and it is classed as a Category five hurricane. At this point, Irma is not merely a major hurricane, but rather, a catastrophic hurricane (that’s not an official word, but it is a word that will be used on the Leeward Islands … there is a good chance the name Irma will be retired).

There are hurricane warnings in effect for Antiqua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Monserrat, St. Kitts, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and other locations. Between Wednesay AM and early morning Thursday, approximately, Irma will bear down on locations between St. Johns and Puerto Rico. It will likely hit the first islands more directly with the center passing north of Puerto Rico, but it will affect everything in that area and this is going to be a disaster. A direct hit on Puerto Rico is in the range of possibilities.

2) Probably: Between perhaps Thursday AM and Friday mid day the storm will weaken slightly. It may pass north of Hispaniola and eastern Cuba, but a direct hit on DR and Cuba is well within the range of possibilities. If so, it will weaken more, if not, it will weaken less.

3) Maybe, maybe not: Between 4 and five days out, so starting in the middle of the weekend, the storm, still weaker but still possibly a major hurricane, will either be interacting with Cuba or staying north of Cuba, and poised to hit, possibly, Florida. Or not.

If you live in Florida, it would be good to assume you need to react to a major hurricane. If you live in the keys, south of Miami, or the Miami area or the southern Gulf area, and this storm hits Florida, you will need to be paying close attention.

By Thursday it should be a lot easier to say if Floridians, or some other group of people on the US Mainland are in trouble. Whatever you can do to be ready for a Hurricane that is non-committal and reasonable, do now, and you should probably have done that at the beginning of the season.

Update Sept 2, PM

Underscoring the futility of making projections of a hurricane’s path beyond five days out, the bulk of the models now show Irma hitting the East Coast or sliding around Florida and hitting the gulf. One puts it through the Louisiana-Mississippi border, one has it heading for Halifax, and then all the others are in between.

What does this mean? In terms of projecting the hurricanes ultimate path or chance of landfall, and location of any landfall, it means nothing yet. However the fact that this category 2 storm is likely to become category 3 storm over the next few days, and then will head in the general direction of land, means, well, that it gets its own blog post (this one) for now, if nothing else.

Update Sept 2 AM

The latest models, still too early to tell but there they are, mostly have Irna going off to sea. A couple have the storm hitting the east coast. None have the storm in the gulf.

Updated Aug 31 Mid Day

First, the storm is intensifying more quickly than expected, and it is expected to become a very powerful storm, ultimately.

Second, while earlier projections from many models allowed for a very wide range of possible paths, the models, still being worked far too out in time but also converging significantly, are starting to suggest that Irma’s most likely course will be to curve up the Atlantic. This involves the possibility of landfall anywhere from the middle sates north to Canada, or no landfall at all. It is still too early to say, but it is looking unlikely for this storm to go into the gulf, but at least one or two models do allow for that.

Updated Aug 31 AM:

Here’s a tweet that shows the current range of model projections for this storm (Note it is way to early to actually predict this far out, but this gives an idea of the range of possibilities):

The National Huricane Center originally suggested that Irma was going to remain relatively low grade for a while as it crossed the first part of Atlantic. However, it is rapidly intensifying and is already on the verge of being a major hurricane. That was not expected. So, this may be an interesting storm.

Original

I’ve been putting comments on, or links to posts on, the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Here, but I wanted to start a thread on Irma, which just now became a named storm. Irma is way out in the Atlantic, and its formation is so early that the NWS doesn’t have any significant information on it as of this writing. But, it is heading roughly west.

Stay tuned.

The Hammer of God

No, this is not a religious reference to Houston or even Trump.

This is, however, a notice that the sci fi classic by Arthur Clarke, The Hammer of God , is suddenly, and I assume temporarily, available for two bucks in Kindle version. Just thought you’d want to know.

Harvey The Hurricane: Truly Climate Change Enhanced

Harvey the Invisible Rabbit: Did not exist.

This is a picture of some men.

Since they are men, they have some abilities. They can, for example, knock each other over, and they can play with balls. This is what men do, and this is what these men can do.

This is a picture of some professional NFL foodball players.

They are also men. They can also knock each other over, and they can also play with balls. But the NFL football players are much better at knocking each other over, and you wouldn’t believe how great they are at playing with balls.

They are NFL enhanced. They are trained, embiggened with special diets, and they are clad with armor and vibrant, often scary, colors.

This is a picture of a hurricane from 1938.

It was a big one; It did lots of damage when it slammed into New England and New York.

A hurricane is a large storm that forms in the tropics, and sometimes hits land. The energy from a hurricane comes from a combination of the earth’s spin, trade winds, and so on, but mainly, from the heat on the surface of the sea. The rain that falls from the hurricane also comes mainly from the sea surface indirectly, and any water that evaporates into the atmosphere.

This is a picture of Harvey the Hurricane, the remnants of which are still circulating around in Texas.

Harvey is a lot like the 1938 hurricane, in that it formed in the tropics, in the Atlantic, and was a big spinny thing. It got its energy in the same way, and formed in the same way, and both slammed into land and scared the crap out of everybody.

But they are different, the 1938 Hurricane and Harvey the Hurricane. How are they different? Have a look at this map:

The pairs of photos above show “then” and “now” for two different things (men and hurricanes). This map shows both then and now in the same graphic. This map represents the current sea surface temperature anomalies, meaning, how much warmer or cooler the current sea temperatures are compared to the same time of year but at some time in the past, averaged over a long period, in this case, from 1971-2000. Global warming was well underway during that period, so present sea surface temperature readings that are above that baseline are not only high but are actually very high, because the baseline is high.

In this map, red is more, blue is less. Look at all the nearly ubiquitous more-ness in sea surface temperatures around the world. That causes the atmosphere across the entire globe to potentially contain much more water vapor than it could have contained during that that baseline period. Look at the sea surface temperature anomalies for the gulf of Mexico, where Harvey formed. They are high. This means that any hurricane that formed over that extra warm water will be stronger, and any tropical storm system that occurs pretty much anywhere on this map (or round the other side of the Earth as well, for that matter) will contain more water, than it would if it existed and all else was equal several decades ago.

This is a picture of a Unicorn.

A unicorn poops rainbows and pees mimosas. Or so I’m told. This is another view of Harvey the Hurricane.

What is the difference between the unicorn and Harvey? Harvey is real, and the unicorn is not.

I won’t quote you or give you links. Why? Because I find this whole thing a bit too embarrassing. But here is the thing. Otherwise intelligent and well informed individuals have stated in various outlets, including major media, and including twitter, that it is simply inappropriate to claim that Harvey the Hurricane is in any way global warming enhanced.

This is wrong. There is no such thing as a storm of any kind that is not a function of the current climatology. The current climatology has widespread and persistent, and in many cases alarmingly high, sea surface temperature anomalies. There will not be a tropical storm, including hurricanes, that escape the physics and poop out rainbows and pee mimosas. They will all be real. They will all have greater power and more moisture than they otherwise would have, had they formed decades ago before the extreme global warming we have experience so far.

There was a time when Harvey was a rabbit, an invisible rabbit only seen by a delusional character in a movie, played by Jimmy Stewart. Today, we have Harvey the Unenhanced Storm, playing that role. It is a fiction, something seen by a few but that is no more real than the above depicted unicorn.

As I was writing this post, Michael Mann posted an item in the Guardian that makes this case.

Sea level rise attributable to climate change – some of which is due to coastal subsidence caused by human disturbance such as oil drilling – is more than half a foot (15cm) over the past few decades … That means the storm surge was half a foot higher than it would have been just decades ago, meaning far more flooding and destruction.

… sea surface temperatures in the region have risen about 0.5C (close to 1F) over the past few decades from roughly 30C (86F) to 30.5C (87F), which contributed to the very warm sea surface temperatures (30.5-31C, or 87-88F).

… there is a roughly 3% increase in average atmospheric moisture content for each 0.5C of warming. Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average … That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.

That large amount of moisture creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding. The combination of coastal flooding and heavy rainfall is responsible for the devastating flooding that Houston is experiencing.

… there is a deep layer of warm water that Harvey was able to feed upon when it intensified at near record pace as it neared the coast….

Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge…

Mann mentions other effects as well, but I’ll let you go read them.

The extra heat at depth Mann mentions is now recognized as responsible for the extra bigness and badness of some other famous hurricanes as well, such as Katrina and Haiyan. Harvey might be a member of a small but growing class of hurricanes, deep-heat hurricanes I’ll call them for now, that simply did not exist prior to global warming of recent decades. Further research is needed on this, but that’s the direction we are heading.

Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth recently noted that “The human contribution can be up to 30 percent or so up to the total rainfall coming out of the storm,”

Aside from Michael Mann’s Guardian article, he has this facebook post making the same argument.

Harvey the Hurricane is real, and so was the 1938 Hurricane. Climate change enhancement of Harvey is real, but unicorns are not. Sadly.

I really thought we had stopped hearing this meme, that “you can never attribute a given weather event to climate change.” But, apparently not. That is a statement that is technically true in the same way that we can’t really attribute an Alberta Clipper (a kind of snow storm) to the spin of the Earth. Yet, somehow, the spin of the Earth is why Alberta Clippers come from Alberta. In other words, the statement is a falsehood that can never be evaluated because it is framed incorrectly. Here is the correct framing:

Climate is weather long term, and weather is climate here and now. The climate has changed. Ergo … you fill in the blank. Hit: Unicorns are not involved.

Is Harvey a failure of the assumption that we’ll adapt to climate change?

There are two reasons that it is fortunate that the death toll for Harvey is very low, compared to similar size storms at other times and at other places (zero at the time I first wrote this, a few confirmed, maybe ten or so suspected three days after landfall).. One is that all those people didn’t die! (Obviously.) The other is that we can ask honest questions about this event, while the event is still fresh in our minds (and, at the moment, actually happening) with the intent of eventually seeking some clarity, without concern trolls biting at our ankles and telling us that we must wait until the hurt wears off before discussing the thing that hurts.

Harvey was windy and there was a storm surge. Anything that got knocked down in the Cat II or above winds, and anything destroyed by storm surge, was pretty much doomed or near-doomed, and we simply hope and perhaps assume that insurance covers that, and insurance rates would not be affected by such damage given that this insurance was sold in a hurricane zone, and thus properly priced. Right?

But the flooding related damage may require some ‘splaining. Harvey is producing what is being referred to as unprecedented rain, and Harvey is staying in place for an astonishing and unbelievable amount of time, and this is causing some areas to be flooded with many feet of rain because the rain came out of the sky and caused a flood.

However, that is not really what happened. First, there have been rainfall amounts greater than anything we’ve seen with Harvey before. Second, hurricanes and tropical storms are known to stall, in fact, they do so fairly often. Third, beyond the empirical fact that such high rates of rainfall have happened before, science knew all along that a scenario like this was not only possible but given a reasonable amount of time, inevitable, because climate scientists can run models that are very good at informing us about possible futures.

So what, you may say. It is still a disaster and it is no one’s fault that this happened. To that, I say, sure, whatever you want to believe to get you through the day, I’m fine with that. But, notice that flooding requires two things. One is water in, i.e., from the sky or from upstream. The other is an inability for the water to leave. The first factor is an act of the (human-changed) weather. The second factor is often very directly human. Humans can do two things. They can build drainage systems (or fail to do so) that can handle the very rare but very large flood, and they can avoid hardening the landscape into solid form (rooftops and parking lots, etc.) in a way that changes flooding patterns to make floods much more likely. It is my understanding that the latter happened in Houston.

Which brings us to the key question: What caused this area of Texas to get stupid about floods? Did everyone decide a long time ago to ignore science? Did everyone decide to spend their money on candy and gum instead of infrastructure? Did the good people of the Lone Star State and its various counties and cities implement reasonable science based policy, then elect a bunch of officials who took bribes or other emoluments to provide exceptions to those policies?

Or, maybe, we’re talking Canadian Province here. None of it. Maybe Texas did all it could, decreased the likelihood of flooding rather than increasing it, and everything is fine. That’s not what I hear, but maybe what I hear is wrong. That is why these are questions, not answers. I hope that we eventually get the answers.

In the end, will it turn out that Harvey is an example of failure of the assumption that we’ll adapt to climate change?

Added: This conversation is now beginning to happen more broadly, with major news outlets noting that Houston is proud of it’s Libertarian zoning laws.

Is The Friday News Dump A Pernicious Falsehood?

Member of the press are so cute. They evolve so slowly. They are like monotremes or something.

It is said again and again that a) government agencies and other entities, especially things like the White House, dump their news late on Fridays because this avoids the normal five-day news cycle and allows hot stories to cool off, and possibly be ignored by Monday and, b) that doesn’t really work any more because of social media and cable news, but still c) we will repeat meme one endlessly anyway so that we can look very smart by then repeating memes b) which brings us to d) rinse and repeat.

Got that?

If not, just turn on any news show and watch it happening every few minutes before your very eyes.

This last Friday, during the encroachment by Harvey on Texas, there seemed to be a lager and stinkier than average Trump Dump in which a white supremacist mysteriously left the white house, Trump signed the official order to totally screw over transsexual people in (or planning to join) the military, and he issued the most controversial presidential pardon ever issued, even more controversial than the pardoning of Nixon (because at least Ford had an excuse for doing that, however lame).

Dear The Press: No. Three major (or at least one important and two major) news stories at once do not in fact get buried under a hurricane, or ignore because friday. Rather, the dump itself becomes a facilitating story. This compels all the news story to the proverbial front page, and it makes the front page as big as it needs to be to hold them. There is no diminution of the individual stories, but rather, they grow even bigger than they ever were.

So what is going on? Something that is right in front of the press but that the press has not yet noticed, amazingly.

I won’t say that Trump is a mater of media. He is a master of nothing. He lacks the qualities people have to become a master of something, and he lacks the intelligence to retain mastery even if he gets close by practicing something a lot for half an afternoon.

But, he does have a lot of experience in media, and he knows how a media cycle works. It works like this: You work all week on a show, then the show goes on as scheduled, then you go on vacation for a couple of days (golfing), then you go back to work. For some reason, that he does not understand, the cycle in the White House has him working on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. So, show time is on Friday late PM, and you go golfing on Saturday and Sunday.

That’s it. No strategic dumping, no planning, no outsmarting. Just a simple pretty close to Pavlovian process. Reminder: Almost all the Friday Trump Dumps are his, not from his staff or any group of thoughtful media managers. Even the description I give above is more planned out than that. Trump just builds up some material, and over time the urge to dispense with it comes and goes a little, then comes and goes a bit more urgency, then gets to a kind of point of no return and ….

Trump Dump.

And, it usually happens on Friday, and after he dumps, he feels like going golfing.

That’s it. Nothing less simple. No mind at work here. Please stop assuming there is a mind at work here. There is not one.

The Animal Connection

You know of Pat Shipman at the very least because of her recent and, dare I say, highly controversial and excellent book The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. If you’ve not read it, do so. But, in the mean time, another book she wrote in the same area, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, is now available on Kindle for two bucks.

Why do humans all over the world take in and nurture other animals? This behavior might seem maladaptive—after all, every mouthful given to another species is one that you cannot eat—but in this heartening new study, acclaimed anthropologist Pat Shipman reveals that our propensity to domesticate and care for other animals is in fact among our species’ greatest strengths. For the last 2.6 million years, Shipman explains, humans who coexisted with animals enjoyed definite adaptive and cultural advantages. To illustrate this point, Shipman gives us a tour of the milestones in human civilization-from agriculture to art and even language—and describes how we reached each stage through our unique relationship with other animals. The Animal Connection reaffirms our love of animals as something both innate and distinctly human, revealing that the process of domestication not only changed animals but had a resounding impact on us as well.

Harvey’s effects on petroleum pricing and related things

The following information is cribbed (with permission) from a FACTBOX produced by S&P Global Platts. Petroleum companies in the Gulf, especially around Houston, are are responding to likely shutdowns or possible damage due to the strengthening Hurricane, which is expected to have its largest impacts over the next 36 hours or so (longer for some flooding).

Before giving you these details, I also saw this: A map being circulated around energy industry folks showing the amount of land in Houston that has been made impermeable (by construction of things and surfaces) since the last big Hurricane. It is a HUGE amount. It seems that over time, Houston has made the prospect of bad flooding given a certain amount of rain worse rather than better (individual cities can make that choice, they may have failed to choose widely).

OK, her is a selection of facts form the FACTBOX:

* In the afternoon, the NYMEX RBOB crack spread against WTI was \$1.91
higher at \$17.67/b, boosted by supply concerns. NYMEX September RBOB settled
up 4.52 cents at \$1.6641/gal. Physical gasoline prices were higher as well.
S&P Global Platts assessed Gulf Coast conventional gasoline at NYMEX October
RBOB plus 12 cents/gal, a 5.89-cent/gal climb and its highest assessment since
August 13, 2015.

* Platts assessed benchmark Gulf Coast jet fuel on the first day of
trading for Colonial Pipeline’s prompt 50th cycle at the NYMEX October ULSD
futures contract minus 3 cents/gal, after it traded at that level in the
Market on Close assessment process. That was up 4 cents from Wednesday, and
its highest level since October 1, 2014.

* In natural gas, TGP Zone 0 was the largest mover in the region, with
prices jumping almost 6 cents to \$2.816/MMBtu. There was a force majeure
issued on Tennessee Gas at 11:30 am CDT time that will impact flows involving
Station 1 and Station 9 near Agua Dulce, Texas. NGPL was evacuating personnel
from Compressor Station 300, and TGP had evacuations at Stations 1 and 9 near
Agua Dulce.

* In shipping, Aframax freight rates rallied with charterers seen working
narrow fixing windows. The east coast Mexico-USGC route climbed 20 Worldscale
points from Wednesday after Chevron took the Bonita for an east coast
Mexico-US Gulf Coast run at w112.5 loading a 70,000 mt cargo with August 27-29
dates. An expectation of potential delays after the hurricane fizzles out and
shipowners heard to be looking for a “hurricane premium” on bookings kept the
market elevated.

Do you know what all that means? Good, let me know in the comments below. I suppose that where pries may be going up, there will be less of an up-going in the event of disaster.

Oil refineries are making some adjustments right now:

* Flint Hills Resources is shutting both the East and West plants of its
296,470 b/d Corpus Christi, Texas, refining complex ahead of Hurricane Harvey,
the company said.

* Other area refiners, such as Valero, Marathon, Phillips 66 and Shell,
said they were monitoring the storm. “We will continue to monitor the storm
and make decisions about refinery operations, especially for our Corpus
Christi and Three Rivers locations where the storm is currently projected to
make landfall,” Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas said.

* The Texas Gulf Coast is home to 4.944 million b/d of refining capacity,
while the Louisiana Gulf Coast is home to 3.696 million b/d of capacity,
according to the US Energy Information Administration.

I suppose that is the part where our entire economy is affected by a hurricane in Houston. Since the hurricane is steering south of Houston this may not be as big a deal, with the direct effects of flooding being the real problem. I assume these plants are all designed to handle pretty much any amount of flooding because they were built in a Hurricane zone by non-idiots. Right?

Meanwhile, the actual production of Texas T is being affected already:

* Some 9.56%, or 167,231 b/d, of US Gulf of Mexico oil output was shut-in
due to Hurricane Harvey as of 11:30 am CDT (1630 GMT) Thursday, the US Bureau
of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said. In addition, some 14.66%, or 472
MMcf/d, of Gulf of Mexico natural gas production was shut-in, BSEE said.
Personnel have been evacuated from 39 production platforms, or 5.29%, of the
737 manned platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the agency said. Personnel have
been evacuated from one of the 10 non-dynamically positioned rigs currently
operating in the Gulf.

* Shell shut operations at its Perdido facility in the Gulf of Mexico
late Wednesday. Shell’s Perdido is one of the world’s deepest floating oil
production platforms, moored at 8,000 feet of water. It is a production hub
for three fields in which Shell has a stake: the Great White, Tobago and
Silvertip fields. Production is about 100,000 b/d.

* ExxonMobil has begun to curtail oil and natural gas production from the
Galveston 209 platform and is preparing the facility for evacuation, a company
spokeswoman said Thursday.

* Anadarko Petroleum has shut production at four fields offshore Texas.
The company said late Wednesday that it had not only removed
all personnel but temporarily shut production at its operated Boomvang,
Nansen, Gunnison and Lucius facilities. Boomvang and Nansen are sited in the
East Breaks area of the Gulf, nearer the Texas coast than the other two
fields, while Gunnison is located in Garden Banks further west and Lucius is
in southeast Keathley Canyon, sited south of Garden Banks.

* ConocoPhillips has evacuated non-essential personnel from its Magnolia
offshore US Gulf of Mexico producing platform, the company said. Magnolia’s
gross production in 2016 was 4,000 boe/d, of which 3,000 boe/d was net to
ConocoPhillips.

* Statoil, which operates two rigs in the Eagle Ford play of South
Texas, said it was securing its rigs and wells and evacuating rig personnel as
well as suspending all non-essential activities.

* ConocoPhillips has suspended drilling and completion activities in the
Eagle Ford Shale and moved non-essential equipment off the six drilling rigs
it is running in the South Texas play.

Seaports and transport terminals are going to shut down or are starting to shut down, and this of course will affect things other than bublin’ crude.

* NuStar Energy is preparing to shut its Corpus Christi crude oil and
refined products terminals in Texas ahead of the storm, spokesman Chris Cho
said Thursday. He did not give a specific timeline for completing the
shut-down process, but said the company has activated its emergency response
plans and will continue to monitor the storm to determine its next course of
action. NuStar’s North Beach Terminal at Corpus Christi in southern Texas
includes a 1.6 million-barrel crude facility, and 10 storage tanks with a
combined capacity of 327,000 barrels for gasoline, distillates, xylene and
toluene.

* Magellan suspended operations early Thursday at its crude terminal and
condensate splitter in Corpus Christi, Texas, in response to the incoming
storm, said spokesman Bruce Heine. The midstream player operates a 3.5
million-barrel crude and condensate storage storage and a 50,000-b/d
condensate splitter at the facility, Heine said in an email. However, the
company’s refined products and crude oil pipelines in the Houston Ship Channel
area are operating normally at this time.

* Port condition Yankee was set for the Texas ports of Houston, Texas
City, Galveston, Freeport and Corpus Christi. Port condition Yankee is when
hurricane force winds are possible within 24 hours, closing inbound traffic.
PIRA Energy Group estimates Texas’ total crude export capacity to be 2.5
million b/d. PIRA, which is part of S&P Global Platts, has arrived at that
data using available public data.

* A source with a shipowner engaged in the US Gulf Coast oil lightering
market confirmed ship-to-ship operations were suspended through the end of the
weekend. “I can confirm that lightering, everywhere from Corpus to Southwest
Pass, is suspended as of today until at least Sunday.”

Thanks very much to the staff at the SPG Global newsdesk, and editor Lisa Miller.

How to clean coal

It suddenly became apparent, just a couple of days ago when President Trump was ranting and raving at a political rally, that the man does not know what clean coal is.

This is a concern because his entire energy policy stems from the assumption that we can mine lots of coal in West Virginia and use that for energy, that this is OK because it will be clean coal.

The term clean coal has been used in three ways, but really, is correctly used in only one way (number 2 of the three below), and when used that way, it is still bogus.

1) The term clean coal, or phrases very close to it, have been used by the energy industry to refer to their cleaning up of coal plants to have them put fewer nasty particulates and chemicals into the air. Clean plants produce clean effluence while burning coal. This is nice and all, but it has nothing to do with the fundamental problem that burning coal is a major contribution to global warming, because when you burn coal you take Carbon that is attached mainly to other Carbon atoms in solid form, and combine it with Oxygen, to make heat and CO2. The CO2 is the greenhouse gas.

2) The term clean coal refers to burning coal and somehow making the CO2 not go into the atmosphere. A method that makes the Carbon not become CO2 is essentially impossible because it is the oxidation of the Carbon that is the energy production process. You can not turn coal into heat energy without making CO2. It. Is. Not. Possible. But, some say it is possible to make the CO2 go away or not be a problem in some other way. If we were talking about a small amount of CO2, that might be possible. We could store it underground or something (never mind that this takes energy too). But for burning a lot of coal, for keeping coal as a major part of our energy policy, we simply can’t do that. You cant store away a gazillaton of a gas every year and expect it to stay stored.

3) This is the newest definition. This is Trump’s definition. You dig the coal up, then you wash it so it is clean. Then you burn it and everything is fine.

Nope.

By the way, the photo above is of the harvesting of sea coal in Hartepool. That, apparently, was a thing.

E.O. Wilson’s Anthill

Anthill: A Novel

Winner of the 2010 Heartland Prize, Anthill follows the thrilling adventures of a modern-day Huck Finn, enthralled with the “strange, beautiful, and elegant” world of his native Nokobee County. But as developers begin to threaten the endangered marshlands around which he lives, the book’s hero decides to take decisive action. Edward O. Wilson—the world’s greatest living biologist—elegantly balances glimpses of science with the gripping saga of a boy determined to save the world from its most savage ecological predator: man himself.

I bring this up now because the Kindle version is, at the moment, two bucks! A tiny price to pay for a big novel about tiny ants.

It is amazing how little we know about animals

Many years ago I was working on a project that, if I recall correctly, used the basic idea of the mouse-elephant curve to test out some statistical feature of reality or some such thing. Or the reverse. Either way, the point is I was using the mouse-elephant curve data.

What is the mouse-elephant curve? This:

You take all the mammals from mouse to elephant, and plot their metabolic rate or, if you like, brain volume, or any other metric, against body mass. You may or may not log an axis. The final result is supposed to be a straight line that approximates all the points. Then, you can measure how “off” any given species is by calculating its residual, or, how far off the line it is. One well known outcome of this procedure is the term “relative brain size” which shows that humans have ginormous brains compared to everything else on the mouse-elephant curve, even though they do not have the largest absolute brain size. (Never mind that cebus monkeys have larger relative brains.)

Anyway, I was working on this and talking about it with my friend Mark Pagel who is a statistics expert and a biologist, and he said something like, “That’s OK, but this is all theoretical, the mouse-elephant curve is made up.”

“What ever do you mean,” I asked.

“The metabolic rate scales to mass the way it does because body surface area scales allometrically to mass, right?”

“Ah, right… so?”

“How many of the animals on the mouse elephant curve have ever been measured for body surface area?” he asked.

“Uh…. eleven?”

“Zero, I’d bet.”

And that is when I realized that we know noting about anything.

Think about this for a second. You can find decades old texts explaining that mammals use XY chromosome compliments to determine sex. But where was the database for all mammals that showed the karyotype for each species? Nowhere. No one had done that. We probably had humans, mice, all the other lab animals of which there are probably about a dozen species, and the farm animals, of which there are probably fewer than a dozen species. That might seem like a good sample, but almost every farm mammal is a bovid, then you add horses, then you add close relatives in the old world murid family, and some closely related primates. Who knows, maybe they had more than that. But there could easily have been some subset of mammals that had independently and subsequent to their split from other mammals evolved a different chromosomal system. (There actually are multiple systems in mammals if you count ALL the mammals, but I’m speaking here of placental mammals.)

OK, maybe that is not easy to imagine, but it is possible to imagine.

The thing is, when it comes to organismic biology, we have made a huge mistake. Lots of research was done on a relatively small number of species, then rather suddenly, the fields of ecology and organismic biology were sidelines and everything became genetics. Genetics is nice and all, but it is not possible to directly answer every single question with just genetics.

This is why I was happy to see the beginnings of a project to cat scan all the cats, and along with the cats, all the other vertebrates.

I quickly add that even though the project is billed as scanning all the verts, and has in its various forms been called “scan all the frogs” or “scan all the vertebrates” etc, it is not that at all. At most, this project will scan a large but incomplete sample of genera, not species. And it really is a problem that they are claiming that they are scanning everything when they simply are not, because this will cause people to think this job is getting done when it is not.

Also, they are scanning a minimal number in each group, and only the available museum specimens. Museum collections are notoriously biased and there may be other problems with 3D morphology as well. Ultimately, a really useful project will scan a full range of development, multiple individuals at each stage, both sexes, etc. And, of I’m sure the folks doing this project understand this. And, eventually this may get done.

I wonder if it will be possible to use these scans to develop surface area estimates for several species of mammal ranging in size from, say, a mouse to an elephant? Of course not … there are no preserved elephats, or for that matter, any large mammal, so all of those critters are not part of this “scan everything” project…. 🙁

Anyway,

The resulting 3D renderings will be uploaded to an existing digital depository, MorphoSource, created by Doug Boyer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where they will be freely available for research in fields such as comparative anatomy, evolution, developmental biology, and biomimetics.

You can find out more about the project by clicking here, and depending on if you have a subscription, get either a summary or a more detailed accounting.

Remember the revelation back a year or so ago that Exxon Mobil knew all about the likely effects of the global warming they contributed to, and the subsequent denials by Exxon that this was not true, yada yada yada?

A paper has just come out that confirms what we all said then. From the abstract:

This paper assesses whether ExxonMobil Corporation has in the past misled the general public about climate change. We present an empirical document-by-document textual content analysis and comparison of 187 climate change communications from ExxonMobil, including peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications, internal company documents, and paid, editorial-style advertisements (‘advertorials’) in The New York Times. We examine whether these communications sent consistent messages about the state of climate science and its implications—specifically, we compare their positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious, and solvable. In all four cases, we find that as documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt. This discrepancy is most pronounced between advertorials and all other documents. For example, accounting for expressions of reasonable doubt, 83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12% of advertorials do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt. We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists’ academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public. Our content analysis also examines ExxonMobil’s discussion of the risks of stranded fossil fuel assets. We find the topic discussed and sometimes quantified in 24 documents of various types, but absent from advertorials. Finally, based on the available documents, we outline ExxonMobil’s strategic approach to climate change research and communication, which helps to contextualize our findings.

The article is free and open access so you can read the whole thing!

Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014), Geoffrey Supran1 and Naomi Oreskes Published 23 August 2017

The Mythical Republican Climate Pivot

Every now and then, I hear someone giving the Republican Party credit for finally starting to get on board with 20th (or even 19th) century science, and 21st century eyeballs, to accept the idea of climate change. That is annoying whenever it happens because it simply isn’t ever true and never will be.

Media Matters for America has a piece critiquing a recent Politico assertion that the tide is turning. Here is some of what they say, click through to the rest.

Politico’s story…offers two main examples to support its argument: First, the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus “has more than tripled in size since January” and now includes 26 of the House’s 240 Republicans. Second, 46 House Republicans voted in July against lifting a requirement that the Defense Department study climate change’s impacts on the military.

But these House members are hardly going out on a limb. The climate caucus does not promote any specific legislation or policies. And military leaders, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, have long been concerned about climate change and have voiced no objections to studying it. Indeed, the Politico article notes, “If the Republican Party is undergoing a shift on climate, it is at its earliest, most incremental stage.”

What the article missed was a timely and dramatic counterexample: In California, where a handful of GOP state legislators recently provided the decisive votes in favor of actual climate legislation, they have come under brutal fire from other Republicans.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a bill on July 25 to extend the state’s cap-and-trade system until 2030. He had negotiated with a handful of Republican legislators and with business lobbies, among others, to craft a relatively corporate-friendly bill, not as strong as many environmental justice advocates and other progressives wanted. In the end, three Democrats in the Assembly voted against it, so it was passed only because seven of their Republican colleagues voted for it. One Republican in the state Senate also voted in favor of the bill.

The blowback against those Republicans was immediate and intense. GOP leaders throughout California are now pushing for the ouster of Republican Assembly Leader Chad Mayes, who played a key role in negotiating the bill and rounding up other Republican votes for it.

And the blowback has gone national: Powerful D.C.-based anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist declared open season on Mayes and the seven other Republicans who voted “yes,” co-authoring an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last week that accused Mayes of “treachery” and argued that the California legislature is a “big fat target for taxpayers who wish to go after Republicans behaving badly.”

If this kind of backlash happens in the Golden State, just imagine what would happen in D.C. if the House Climate Solutions Caucus did anything more than gently gesture at the possibility of climate action. Conservative groups in D.C. aren’t even satisfied with an administration that’s been aggressively rolling back environmental protections; they are pushing the EPA to debate and undermine basic climate science.

National media should be reporting on the drama unfolding in California when they write about Republicans and climate change. It’s been covered by newspapers in the state but missed by virtually all outlets beyond California’s borders.

Politico is far from alone in pushing the idea that Republicans might be nearing a tipping point on climate change. Reporters and columnists at national outlets keep publishing versions of this seemingly counterintuitive story and glossing over a key truth: The base and the establishment of the Republican Party will enact harsh retribution on elected officials who endorse policies designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Vice published a piece on August 17 titled “The Republicans Trying to Fight Climate Denial in Their Own Party,” which focused on the Climate Leadership Council…

Time ran an article in May headlined “Meet the Republicans Taking On Climate Change,” which mentioned both the Climate Solutions Caucus and the Climate Leadership Council. The Guardian ran one in April under the headline “The Republicans who care about climate change: ‘They are done with the denial.'”…

….

Go all the way back to 2010 for a classic of the genre, a Thomas Friedman opinion column in The New York Times titled “How the G.O.P. Goes Green,” which praised Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for “courageously” trying to craft a bipartisan climate bill. Less than four months later, Graham bailed from the whole enterprise and helped to ensure that no climate legislation would pass during the Obama presidency.

It’s nice that a handful of congressional Republicans are taking baby steps toward acknowledging that climate change is a big problem that demands big solutions. But their moves are far from courageous, and the media adulation they get is all out of proportion to their clout. Norquist is more influential on this issue than all of the climate-concerned congressional Republicans combined, a fact most journalists are not acknowledging, and Norquist reiterated his die-hard opposition to a carbon tax just last week.

Many of the articles about Republicans turning over a new leaf on climate cite Bob Inglis or the group he runs, RepublicEN, which promotes conservative climate solutions. Inglis was a U.S. representative from South Carolina until he got primaried out in 2010, in part because he called for a carbon tax. Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform, gave a boost to Inglis’ primary challenger. In the years since, Inglis has been working doggedly to get other Republicans to take climate change seriously, but if they followed his advice at this point, they’d likely get booted out in a primary too.

Just like there’s no Donald Trump pivot, there’s no Republican climate pivot. We’ll know we’re seeing real change when more than a handful of GOP lawmakers take a risky vote for actual policy to reduce carbon emissions. Until then, journalists should avoid writing trend stories about this nonexistent trend.

US government disbands climate-science advisory committee

Posting this with no comment because it is expected and so obviously bone-headed Trump:

US President Donald Trump’s administration has disbanded a government advisory committee that was intended to help the country prepare for a changing climate.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration established the committee in 2015 to help businesses and state and local governments make use of the next national climate assessment. The legally mandated report, due in 2018, will lay out the latest climate-change science and describe how global warming is likely to affect the United States, now and in coming decades.

The advisory group’s charter expired on 20 August, and Trump administration officials informed members late last week that it would not be renewed. “It really makes me worried and deeply sad,” says Richard Moss, a climate scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park and co-chair of the committee. “It’s another thing that is just part of the political football game.”

Read the whole story with the awful details HERE.

Hunley Blast Killed Hunley Crew, Research Suggests (OR MAYBE NOT!) UPDATED

SEE END OF POST FOR IMPORTANT UPDATE

A while back, I read Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War by Mark Ragan. The central theme of the book was the invention, more or less, of the submarine and the torpedo, curing the Civil War, but the South.

The torpedo was a very tricky idea at the time. Most of the first ones involved dragging an object with a bomb inside it, or the bomb itself, by a rope, behind a submarine. The submarine would approach the target vessel, and submerge, going under it, and the bomb would hopefully be dragged into the target and explode. This hardly ever worked.

The Hunley, no relation to George, was an early submarine (the central figure in the above mentioned book) intended for this use. Things didn’t go well with the Hunley. An early incarnation of the craft sank because it was sitting there at the dock with all the people in it and the hatches open, then it fell over and sank. Ooops.

Eventually, the Hunley was armed with an alternative style of torpedo, one that stuck out of the submarine on a long rod. I think the idea was that the torpedo latch onto the target, and the submarine moves away a bit, then the explosion happens. But when the Hunley went after the USS Housatonic in February 1864, things went both very well and terribly wrong. The Housatonic warship was sunk alright, but so was the Hunley. Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War outlines the story up to a point, and is a VERY detailed accounting of all the things that ever had anything to do with confederate torpedoes and submarines. But at the time of publication, the actualistic studies had not been done.

Actualistic studies are, of course, experiments where you replicate a situation and then see what can happen and can not happen, or might happen, or might not happen. Like you make stone tools and butcher an elephant, then look at the stone tools and the bones to help understand ancient stone tools and bones.

In this case, the actualistic studies involved blowing up submarines to see if the explotion itself, at the hull of the Housatonic, was possibly fatal to the sailors in the sub.

Likely, it was.

Here is the Abstract from the paper reporting these results:

The submarine H.L. Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship during combat; however, the cause of its sinking has been a mystery for over 150 years. The Hunley set off a 61.2 kg (135 lb) black powder torpedo at a distance less than 5 m (16 ft) off its bow. Scaled experiments were performed that measured black powder and shock tube explosions underwater and propagation of blasts through a model ship hull. This propagation data was used in combination with archival experimental data to evaluate the risk to the crew from their own torpedo. The blast produced likely caused flexion of the ship hull to transmit the blast wave; the secondary wave transmitted inside the crew compartment was of sufficient magnitude that the calculated chances of survival were less than 16% for each crew member. The submarine drifted to its resting place after the crew died of air blast trauma within the hull.

UPDATE

The Hunley Project has issued the following rather startling press release:

Recently, Duke University issued a press release claiming one of their student’s discovered what caused the Hunley’s crew to perish and the submarine to sink in 1864. In today’s digital age, the story spread across the internet quickly due to the sensational headline. However, a spokesman for the Hunley Project said today, the story is not accurate.

The pioneering submarine and her history have captured the imaginations of people across the globe. The Hunley Project regularly receives theories from the public about what led to the submarine’s loss and other ideas related to their research. “The case of Duke University’s press release is a bit different as it has created quite a stir,” said Kellen Correia, Executive Director of Friends of the Hunley. Duke University is not part of the Hunley Project’s investigative team. They don’t have access to the detailed forensic and structural information related to the submarine, which would be essential to draw any sort of reliable or definitive conclusions.

The Hunley Project said they felt the need to issue a statement today to make sure the unsubstantiated theory claimed by the Duke University student does not continue to spread, in view of the comprehensive research conducted by the Hunley team on the submarine for more than 15 years. The idea of a concussive wave from the torpedo explosion killing the crew, as outlined in the Duke University release, has been previously considered and is one of many scenarios the Hunley Project team has been investigating.

“The Duke study is interesting, they just unfortunately didn’t have all the facts. If it were as easy as simple blast injuries, we would have been done a while ago. Though a shock wave can cause life-threatening injuries, this is something we discounted quite a while back based on the evidence,” said Jamie Downs, former Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Alabama.

The Hunley became the world’s first successful combat submarine in 1864 and then mysteriously vanished without a trace. She remained lost at sea for over a century and was raised in 2000. Since then, a collaborative research effort with the U.S. Navy, the Smithsonian Institution, Clemson University and others has been underway to uncover the reasons for the Hunley’s loss and conserve the vessel for future generations.

Using detailed information about the composition and dimensions of the Hunley’s iron structure, forensic analysis of the crew’s remains, and other research and archaeological data, the Hunley Project and its partners have conducted comprehensive digital and physical simulations for the past several years. While the likely cause of the submarine’s demise has not been concluded, the scenario of a concussive wave killing the Hunley crew has been deemed not likely by those working on the actual submarine and who have access to this key data.

Their most recent study was issued by the U.S. Navy this month and was conducted in collaboration with the Hunley Project. “Given the amount of uncertainty surrounding the vessel’s final mission, a bottom-up technical analysis was commissioned alongside ongoing archeological investigation of the Hunley. Calculations of Hunley’s engagement with the Housatonic were successfully completed and it was observed that the engagement would have been devastating to the Housatonic while resulting in relatively low levels of loading on Hunley,” according to their report. For the full report, go to: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/underwater-archaeology/sites-and-projects/ship-wrecksites/hl-hunley/hunley-incident-analysis.html

The Hunley Project remains committed to sharing the most accurate information about the submarine that is available and welcomes discussion and ideas from the public and other academic institutions about the Hunley and her history. Still, Correia cautions, “As tempting as it may be, we are careful not to jump to definitive conclusions until all the research has been evaluated.”

The Hunley Project
On the evening of February 17, 1864, the H. L. Hunley became the world’s first successful combat submarine by sinking the USS Housatonic. After signaling to shore that the mission had been accomplished, the submarine and her crew of eight mysteriously vanished. Lost at sea for over a century, the Hunley was located in 1995 by Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). The innovative hand-cranked vessel was raised in 2000 and delivered to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where an international team of scientists are at work to conserve the submarine for future generations and piece together clues to solve the mystery of her disappearance. The Hunley Project is conducted through a partnership with the Clemson University Restoration Institute, South Carolina Hunley Commission, US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, and Friends of the Hunley.