Category Archives: Severe Weather and Other Disasters

State of the climate, 2019

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The year 2018 was warm, but since previous years had been super warm, it may have seemed a bit cooler. There was indeed a downswing, but only a little one.

However, 2019 is looking like an upswing year. It will not be as warm as the recent El Nino year, but it will be close, and it will follow the predicted upward course of global warming caused by our release of greenhouse gasses and the effect of those gasses on delicate and critically important atmospheric chemistry.

Climate Central has a a State of the Climate report here.

Note that the various predictions for the activity level of the 2019 hurricane season suggest an average year. The most common midpoint of estimates for the number of actual hurricanes is five, with 2 major ones, in the Atlantic. The long term average for those numbers is 6.4 and 2.7. However, the estimate for the total number of named storms is a bit higher than the average of 12.1, suggesting between 10 and 14 or so. We have already had one, before the official start of the season, but the Atlantic has been relatively quiet since then.

This Spring’s unprecedented flooding is of course directly related to climate change, and there isn’t a sane person on the Earth who doesn’t accept that as truth. You will have a harder time finding people accepting a link between tornado activity, which has been very high this year, and global warming, but it is also true that a) there has been a very well entrenched and active non-acceptance of that relationship for years in the meteorological community and b) it seems that having a few bad years in a row, as we have had with hurricanes, is required before enough people put their thinking caps on and think. So, I await a possible shift in position on tornadoes and global warming.


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A New Book On Drought by NASA GISS’s Ben Cook

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Drought: An Interdisciplinary Perspective by Benjamin (Ben) Cook is the book you’ve always needed handy when the dry side of climate or climate change comes up in conversation.

The relationship between rainfall, groundwater, evaporation and transpiration, vegetation, bodies of water, animal distribution, agriculture, humans, and atmospheric conditions (not to mention oceanic factors and topography) underlie many different realms of academia and policy. Almost nothing I’ve ever done in my anthropological research didn’t include the hydrologic cycle, climate, and related issues. The weather weirding we are currently watching across the globe, including the current heavy rains and tornadoes, are part of this, and the long lived California Drought, the one that ended just recently, is as well.

In Drought: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, Cook looks at the dry end of the spectrum of the hydrologic cycle, but in so doing, he really has to cover the basics of rain related climate. There is math, and there is complicated science, in this book, but all of the material presented here is accessible to anyone who wishes to learn. If you are interested in climate change or agriculture, or paleoclimate, or any of that, Cook’s book is an essential reference, filling a gap that exists in the available range of current public-facing serious science books.

Cook covers the hydrologic cycle and the relationship between the hydrologic cycle and climatology. He defines the sometimes confusing concepts and measurements known as “drought” in a non-confusing and detailed way. I’ve found that in many discussions of drought, self defined experts who also happen to be climate change deniers tend to talk past (or over or around) others, making it difficult for the average non-expert to avoid frustration. Cook will arm you with the knowledge to stand up to such shenanigans!

Cook covers drought in the Holocene, and the relationship between climate change and drought. He provides two key detailed case studies (the American dust bowl, and droughts in the Sahel of Africa). He covers landscape degradation and desertification, and irrigation.

Drought: An Interdisciplinary Perspective is fully authoritative and thorough, and, as noted, very readable and understandable. Reading this book might make you thirsty but it will also make you smarter.

Ben Cook is a research scientist at NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and he teaches at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies.


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I’m warning you, watch for those tornadoes!

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Paul Douglas points out, as Item #1 in his thoughtful 6 Take-Aways From The Biggest Swarm of U.S. Tornadoes Since 2011, that “too many people still don’t know the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning. A Tornado Watch means “watch out”… Go about your normal activities but stay alert… A Tornado Warning … means that a tornado has been spotted … It means life-threatening weather is imminent… it’s time to take evasive action.”

I’ll note that the words “watch” and “warning” are, as words, not sufficiently hierarchializable (to coin a term) for this job, perhaps. I mean, yes, it makes sense — what Paul Douglas says makes sense — but there could be warning signs of a thing that never happens, and we all agree that if only the watch had been more alert, the Titanic would have veered to the left sooner, thus sailing forward into obscurity instead of infamy. Maybe we need new words.

Paul notes that a “tornado emergency” is also a term of art, and it means that there is a confirmed big tornado “on the ground and capable of significant damage and loss of life, … issued when a large tornado is on the ground and pushing into a more heavily-populated suburban or urban area.” Maybe extending the definition of Tornado Emergency to mean any imminent threat with greater than a certain likelihood? Or would that water it down?

Paul also points out several other aspects, both falsehoods and important truehoods, about tornadoes, so you should just click through and read, and absorb and remember, 6 Take-Aways From The Biggest Swarm of U.S. Tornadoes Since 2011

Do you remember the old Dick Van Dyke Show episode where they had a contest to come up with a new word for “butter?” Don’t remember that? Neither do I, really, but I’m pretty sure it happened. I can not remember what word they came up with. There is evidence that words like “climate change” and “global warming” don’t spark the brain as much as words like “climate chaos” and “climate disruption.” I think that evidence is weak, and at least one study looking at people’s brains, purporting to show this, seems to have some limitations. The idea here is that the words or phrases are less or more effective because of the way they sound. Maybe, and to a large extent words DO have different levels of effectiveness. But how much a word has ever been heard probably strongly influences its effectiveness as well. But that can be much more subtle and nuanced than people may realize. An oft heard word may numb the listeners and fail to cause a brain spark. But at the same time, an oft-heard phrase can insinuate itself into the truth-ish ether that we all swim around in, causing something to become more real whether it is real or not.

(See more about that topic here.)

Also, there is the “w” problem. Both “Watch” and “Warning” start with the same sound. At least they are not the same number of syllables, and at least they don’t rhyme.

Perhaps there should be three words in alphabetical order, at the beginning of the alphabet, allowing for us to speak of the “ABCs” of tornadoes.

Alert! — stay alert since tornadoes COULD form in your area today.
Buckle Down!! — There is a tornado or possible tornado in your area, assume for safety’s sake that you are in danger.
Crap!!!! — If you are listening to this warning you have not dug deep enough into your hole. DIG DEEPER!

Or something along those lines.

Ideas?


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First Named Atlantic Storm of 2019

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Ninety-seven percent of North Atlantic cyclones form after June 1st and before November 30th. Note that the end of the Atlantic hurricane season used to be October 31st, but it was moved because the hurricane scientist got tired of cleaning out their locker six times a year instead of just one time. Over the many years of tracking storms, 89 named storms have happened outside the named season.

So it is not utterly odd that Tropical Storm Andrea is now swirling about in the Atlantic, southwest of Bermuda.

It is possible, but unlikely, that Andrea will turn into a hurricane. It is too early to be sure bla bla bla but all the available information about this storm strongly indicates that it will move up the middle of the Atlantic and eventually become a large wet spot somewhere in Europe. I’m putting my money on Ireland. (yes, I now, too early bla bla bla, but Ireland.)

For your information, the next named storm will be Barry. Then…

Chantal
Dorian
Erin
Fernand
Gabrielle
Humberto
Imelda
Jerry
Karen
Lorenzo
Melissa
Nestor
Olga
Pablo
Rebekah
Sebastien
Tanya
Van
Wendy


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Minnesota Winter Myths

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Minnesota established its national reputation as a snowy and cold state because of a series of real and fictional events. During this time, the population of Minnesota has grown considerably. I’ll tell you why this matters after I show you the important data. We will then use this new found understanding to evaluate a recent viral video in the light of changing climate.

1940, Armistice Day Blizzard (145 dead). Population: 2.7 million

1970 Blizzard episode of Mary Tyler Moore show (no casualties). Population: 3.8 million

1991, Halloween Blizzard (22 dead, 100 injured). Population: 4.3 million

2019 The Great Snows of 2019 (casualties not yet counted). Population: 5.7 million

The average total snowfall for the Twin Cities is 47 inches over the winter, over the last century or so. Prior to 1979 (inclusively) the average was 43.7 inches. After that date, the average has been 53.4 inches. That is an expected increase of 20% owing likely to added moisture in the atmosphere caused by global warming.

For comparison, the average total snowfall in Buffalo, New York is 94 inches. The average annual snowfall in Boston is 42 inches, more like Minnesota. It is said that Minnesota gets a lot of snow. But really, Minnesota is mostly a semi-dry state, where agriculture only happens with irrigation, and the snowfall is half what it is on the other side of the Great Lakes, and about the same as the east coast. (The east coast is wetter, but more of that falls as rain or, as is the case of Boston, dense slush.)

Since the famous Armistice Day blizzard, which surely contributed significantly to Minnesota’s reputation, the population of the state has doubled. Since the Mary Tyler Moore days, when Minnesota became known to most other Americans, population has gone up by something like 30%. Indigenous Minnesotans don’t reproduce that fast, and many move away (to California, mostly) so that is a much larger number that are totally new to the area, often from tropical or at least warmer, areas, than one might think.

Plus, Minnesotans are known to be masters of passive-aggressive. But this also means they are masters of another trait: Deep denial.

For all these reasons, the weather of Minnesota matters little, and the reputation not at all, as a foundation for the ability of Minnesotans to handle winter. Which brings us to the following video, which YOU MUST WATCH TO THE END:

Conclusions: Look out the window before you leave your garage!


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Go Home, Arctic, You’re Drunk

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Dusting off the old meme I made a few years back, last time the Polar Vortex attacked North America:

And yes, regardless of any dispute about the term “Polar Vortex” itself (there is some confusion and disagreement), the excursion of air masses that normally reside in a particular latitudinal region (i.e, tropical, temperate, polar) can be, and likely is, caused by the effects of human release of greenhouse gasses. Ironically, the sequence of steps that go from your local coal plant or the back end of your excessively large car to an attack by the polar vortex involves a warming of the Arctic. So, I suppose, the polar air we are at present being assaulted with could be worse.

Simply put, as the Arctic warms, the age-old and somewhat complex process of heat moving from the warm equatorial regions to the poles (which you know it has to do, right?) is messed up because the longitudinal temperature gradient is messed up. This causes the giant circles of fast air known as the jet streams to bunch up and form enormous semi-stable loops known as quais-resonant Rossby waves. Once these suckers are happening, all kinds of things happen, like very wet rainy periods causing major flooding, much larger and more intense than usual blizzards, multi-year droughts, and these very annoying arctic incursions.

And that’s what we are having right now in the upper middle part of North America.

Like this:

Note that when you get down that far, the difference between F and C matters little.


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Lost in Paradise, California

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Which of the following is more likely?

1) Over 500 people died in Paradise, who’s bodies have not yet been recovered.

2) Over 500 people fled Paradise, and now, getting on to weeks later in time, have not heard that hundreds are missing and unaccounted for, and that hundreds of searchers are looking for them in the rubble, with no small amount of danger to the searchers, anxiety to everyone else, and of course expense. Continue reading Lost in Paradise, California


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Another hurricane heading to Texas

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Seriously? A hurricane heading to Texas, you say? How can that be, the Atlantic Ocean is devoid of any significant storm activity that could possibly lead to a hurricane.

Turn around! Hurricane Willa is churning off the West Coast of Mexico, and is expected to develop into a major hurricane before hitting the Mexican coast. It will then traverse the wide part of Mexico and eventually, as a tropical depression, arrive in southern Texas. So, technically, a hurricane, is not going to hit Texas. But Hurricane Willa, it its latter days as a potentially newsworthy storm, will. And it will be wet and flooding will likely be a concern.

Also, keep an eye out for what this tropical depression does if it actually breaks through to the Gulf of Mexico. It is too early to say, but there are projections that have Wil;a’s remnants staying on the mainland and wetting down Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, then maybe Alabama, Tennessee and points further north. There are projections that have it go out to the Gulf, and then, in some case, hitting florida. Of the many models out there, only one, however, has the storm actually gaining sufficient strength over the Gulf to become a hurricane again. But still, keep an eye out.

Wil;a will probably transition into a strong Category 3 hurricane by mid day Monday. About Mid day Tuesday, the storm will be far off shore, but its forward speed will increase dramatically and it will be a very fast moving hurricane, making landfall by mid day Wednesday. The first wet spots from Wil;a will be coming into Texas by mid day Thursday.

The storm is expected to come ashore anywhere between LaCruz and Tepic, with the current bulls eye being around Escuinapa on the coast, Durango inland. At risk is a fairly intensely developed agricultural region along the coastal plain. The storm will pass over very hilly and mountainous terrain, which presumably creates a large risk for flooding. The area of Texas most likely to be affected are south of (and including) San Antonio and Austin, all the way south to Brownsville. However, it is a bit early to make such predictions.

A little after Willa plows into Mexico, a second storm, Vicente, not expected to become a hurricane, will menace roughly the same area along the Mexican coast.


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Hurricane Michael Got Much Stronger Suddenly

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Just a quick note to inform those of you who get all your news here, that Hurricane Michael strengthened to a Category 4 storm, and will be a Category 4 storm at the time of landfall today, wed, mid day or early afternoon. I’m asking around to see if storm experts see that as truly unexpected or in the range of normal variation. My bet: Deep warm surface waters (to 100 meters or so) at “hurricane level” temperatures fueling the storm. That happened with Katrina, Maria, Pacific Yolanda, other storms. Just a guess on my part for now.

The storm is actually continuing to get stronger, but will remain in the Category 4 range.

Maximum sustained winds, therefore, will be ca 140-145 mph, which is equivalent to and F-2 tornado,but the size of Rhode Island.

In addition, note that this storm is now predicted to remain as a Hurricane way inland, and may be a Category 1 storm past Albany, Georgia.

In short, Michael will be one of the most impressive hurricanes to ever make landfall in the Atlantic US. And just think only a few days ago, we had no idea it was coming. My friend Paul Douglas just confirmed for me that a Category 4 hurricane has never hit the panhandle of Florida.

One tiny piece of good news. The storm is making a rightward turn, just a small one, and the bulls eye has held steady or moved slightly west. This has the effect of reducing the strength of the storm surge east of Apalachicola. A little.

I would not want to be a barrier island or estuary anywhere near Port St. Joe this afternoon.


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What to expect from Hurricane Michael UPDATED

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Atlantic Hurricane Michael will be a memorable, destructive, storm. It is currently about 250 miles south of Florida, and will likely hit the Florida Panhandle the hardest, but nearby areas are at risk. As I write this, the storm is moving north with 105 kt (120 mph) winds. That makes it a stoong Category 3, aka major, hurricane.

Tuesday/Wednesday Midnight

During the wee hours of the morning, Michael will be a Category 3 storm, with winds of about 110 kt (125 mph) but with maximum gusts of 135 kt (155 mph). Tropical storm force winds will be arriving along coast, anywhere from Louisiana to the entire Gulf Coast of Florida.

Wednesday Morning

By sunrise tomorrow morning, Michael will have strengthened somewhat (winds at 110 kt, 125 mph). I’m not sure if Michael will beat any records, but it will go on the short list for how little time it take to go from a tropical disturbance to a major hurricane, and how little time it takes to go from a recognized threat to a land-falling storm. Michael may challenge our process of preparation and evacuation.

Wednesday mid day

The eye of Michael will be looming off shore by mid afternoon tomorrow, making landfall before dinner. Just at the time of landfall, the storm will be a stgrong category 3, with 110 kt (125 mph) winds, with gusts of 135 kt (155 mph).

But long before landfall, the storm will be pelting coastal and inland communities, because “landfall” isn’t the key moment in a hurricane’s life. (See this for more on that.)

Bulls Eye

The bulls eye of the storm, the middle of the range across which predictions say the eye will make landfall, has only moved a little over the last day or so. However, remember that as storms move off the ocean and onto the continent, their track can become less predictable. However, in this case, most of the different tracks predicted by the various models are similar. Also, it is my impression that Gulf storms going north at an accelerated speed into this area tend to stay on track. So, it is very reasonable at this point to suggest the following are very likely:

The center of the storm the eye, will make landfall somewhere east of Pensacola, which is at the western tip of the Florida Panhandle, through somewhere east of Tallahassee. In other words, almost all of the Florida Panhandle is in or very near the most likely spot for landfall. The exact bulls eye a this moment is ther Tyndall Air Force Base, in the immediate vicinity of Panama City Beach.

If this storm puts its eye over Panama City, would somebody please get a picture of the Hard Rock Cave sign inside the eye? I’m actually writing a piece of fiction where that exact photograph is used to make a “Welcome to Florida” post card that figures into the story. Thanks.

Anyway, of extreme relevance is this. There is about a 50-50 chance, or a little less, that the eye will come to shore in such a location that the hard-bunch front right quadrant of the storm will hit the coast at one of the worst possible places to do so in the Gulf. The front right quadrant of a fast forward moving Atlantic hurricane is where maximum damage tends to happen. There are three reasons.

1) A storm with 100 mph wind swirling around the center, but moving forward at 20 mph, can have 120 mph winds in the front right quadrant.

2) All the things that cause a storm surge are maximized in the front right quadrant of an Atlantic hurricane.

3) Even the rainfall is probably greater in the front right quadrant, because this is the part of the hurricane where the corpus of the storm has spent the most time over warm sea water, picking up moisture.

Now we add the coastal effect. When a storm surge moves against the coast, if the coast itself is funnel shaped, or embayed, the surge is narrowed down and concentrated.

If the eye of Michael comes ashore near Apalachicola or to the east a bit, the right front quadrant would be facing into a bight, the embayed area that forms part of the armpit of Florida. Within that bight, at a much smaller scale, are numerous estuaries that run perpendicular to the coast without a lot of barrier island protecting them. There is a very large area where the National Weather Service, which by the way the Trump Appointed Secretary of Commerce (NOAA is within the Commerce Department), who also owns a private weather company, wants to essentially shut down, estimates possible storm surge of over 9 feet. Like this:

Inland, the storm will move quickly north and east, and by the end of the week, tropical storm force winds will be up in the Canadian Maritimes. Within 24 hours of landfall, the wet and windy remnants of Michael will be menacing the region previously flooded by Florence. The storm will probably punch back out into the Atlantic in coastal Virginia or North Carolina.


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Hurricane Michael

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Hurricane Michael just formed in the straits between the Yucatan and western Cuba, and it is heading for the US Gulf. The bull’s eye is currently the vicinity of Port St Joseph and Apalachiocola, not far east of Panama City. The right front quadrant thus is heading for the bight between Apalachicola and Suwannee, where things could be very messy if there is a strong storm tide.

Landfall would be expected in about 48 hours, and the actual bull’s ey could be anywhere between Pensacola and Cedar Key, with areas well outside of that (including Mobile, Alabama) being affected.

The thing about this storm is that just a few hours ago, it was projected to be a Category 1 storm, but is now expected to be a (weak?) Category 3 storm. And, it is coming in fast.

It is too early to say what the storm surges may be, or exactly where it will come ashore. Unlike Florence (or Harvey), Michael is not expected to linger on or near the coast, but rather, will plow through the US Southeast as a storm, probably passing over Atlanta, coming into the Atlantic not far from where Florence went, possibly menacing Washington DC and Philadelphia, the home of the Eagles, recently defeated by the Minnesota Vikings. There could be areas with 6-10 inches of rain in the Florida Panhandle and Georgia.

The two big climate change related stories with Michael may end up being: 1) It formed fast and got strong fast and moved fast, like Patricia (Mexico, a few years ago) and Maria (2017); and 2) Michael is passing over anthropogentic-climate-change-superheated waters (at least somewhat superheated) in the Gulf.


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Were the solar plants hit by Florence blown into oblivion?

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No.

Faced with Hurricane Florence’s powerful winds and record rainfall, North Carolina’s solar farms held up with only minimal damage while other parts of the electricity system failed, an outcome that solar advocates hope will help to steer the broader energy debate….

When Florence made landfall on Sept. 14, it caused power outages across the region. As energy experts point out, the most vulnerable part of the system is not new at all: it’s the power lines and other equipment that transport electricity to customers.

Rooftop solar did ok as well.

Rooftop solar companies, such as Renu Energy Solutions in Charlotte, say there was little damage to their customers’ home solar systems. However, installers in some of the hardest-hit areas, such as Cape Fear, did not respond to messages seeking comment and there is a higher likelihood of damage there.

So, we’ll see how that goes, but I imagine the biggest problem for rooftop solar is a tree falling on the house, and when that happens, the home owner may have a bigger problem than some solar panels getting smashed.

The details are all here, in this story at Inside Climate News: Solar Energy Largely Unscathed by Hurricane Florence’s Wind and Rain


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The Lawerence, Mass Fires

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My first thought on hearing of the outbreak of fires and explosions in Lawrence and Andover Mass was to wonder how many people living in or near these homes are having PTSD reactions right now. You may not remember this, or even know about it, but back in 1991 and 1992, when I was working in Lawrence and Andover and other New England locations doing archaeology, there was an amazing spate of arson attacks in the area. There were over 200 fires set in the city, many of old historic mills that burned to the ground. The people of Lawrence were truly traumatized by this. The cops arrested two people and charged them with several counts, but I don’t think they were ever determined to have been responsible. I don’t recall this spate of crimes ever being solved.

My second thought was, could this be the energy infrastructure Russian FSB/GRU attack that we were warned of?

It seemed early on that the gas fires in Lawrence were caused by large increase in pressure on the gas lines. The pressure in the gas lines going into your house is set to be just above atmospheric pressure, while the pressure in gas delivery lines can be very much higher. There are devices that down regulate the pressure as it gets nearer your house, and the lines in your neighborhood that feed individual buildings have the lower pressure. The main natural gas “transmission” lines have sensors that measure pressure, and computer systems that regulate pressure. There have been cases in the past (not necessarily in the US) where malicious code was used to blow up gas lines by changing the pressure. Interestingly, an instance of computers going wrong (which may or may not have been a cyber attack) caused the largest non-nuclear explosion ever, on the Trans-Siberian pipeline.

Most likely the Lawrence gas explosion involved something going wrong with pressure, and most likely that was something wrong with a valve (or human error, or whatever). But, given that we (Americans) were warned that the energy infrastructure had already been hacked by Russian agents (not regular people who are Russians, but by bad guy Russians working for bad guy Putin) …. well, somebody really should look into that. Just to be sure.


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