Environment Forum

Floods? Droughts? Wildfires? Hurricanes? Yes, there is a climate change connection

For years, climate scientists were circumspect when asked if a specific bit of violent weather — for example, Hurricane Irene, the late-summer storm that slammed the heavily populated U.S. East Coast — could be blamed in some way on climate change.

“Climate is what you expect,” the scientists would say, “while weather is what you get.” They would often go on to say that while increasingly severe weather and correspondingly serious costs and consequences were forecast in climate change computer simulations, there was no way to directly blame a given storm on human-generated heat-trapping gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

There still is no direct line between a certain amount of warming and a certain storm, wildfire, drought or flood. But there is a “new normal,” detailed by scientists on a new website . Staffed and advised by some of the most well-known climate change experts in the United States and elsewhere, the site says plainly that what the computer models foretold in 2007 is clearly documented to be occurring.

“All weather events are now influenced by climate change because all weather now develops in a different environment than before,” the Climate Communication site noted in an article released days after Irene dumped record amounts of rain on the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

“While natural variability continues to play a key role in extreme weather, climate change has shifted the odds and changed the natural limits, making certain types of extreme weather more frequent and more intense. The kinds of extreme weather events that would be expected to occur more often in a warming world are indeed increasing.”

As if 2007 never happened?

If four years is a lifetime in politics, it’s an eternity in climate change politics. Events in Washington this week might make climate policy watchers wonder if 2007 really happened.

At issue is the decision by American Electric Power to put its plans for carbon capture and storage on hold, due to the weak economy and the lack of a U.S. plan to limit emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide. Read the Reuters story about it here.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS for short, has been promoted as a way to make electricity from domestic coal without unduly raising the level of carbon in the atmosphere. Instead of sending the carbon dioxide that results from burning coal up a smokestack and into the air, the plan was to bury it underground. But that costs money and requires regulatory guarantees, and neither are imminent in the United States. Legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions bogged down on Capitol Hill a year ago and has not been re-introduced.

Even everyday weather could pack a $485 billion punch

No question about it: this has been a wild weather year so far in the United States, with record rains, droughts, wildfires and tornadoes. But a new study indicates that even routine weather events like rainstorms and cooler-than-normal days could pack a huge annual economic wallop.

Weather’s effect on all sectors of the U.S. economy may total $485 billion a year, as much as 3.4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, according to research published in the current Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It is the first study to apply qualitative economic analysis to estimate the U.S. economy’s weather sensitivity.

Mining and agriculture are particularly sensitive to weather influences, with routine variations taking a toll of 14 percent on mining each year — possibly because of changing demands for oil, gas and coal — and farming feeling a 12 percent impact, conceivably because temperature and precipitation affect many crops, the study said.

Did human activities cause the Mississippi River flood?

As the Mississippi River crested at near-record levels near Memphis, Tennessee, a nagging question surfaced at a Capitol Hill briefing: are people to blame? According to one expert on water and hydrology, the answer is closer to yes than no.

“I’m not suggesting these (floods) are caused by climate change, but there’s very clear scientific evidence that the risk of flooding on the Mississippi River is increasing because of human influence,” said Peter Gleick, president of the California-based Pacific Institute.

Human influence comes in at least two ways, Gleick told a briefing that drew congressional staff and personnel from U.S. agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (You can see the briefing slides here.) First, the carbon dioxide emitted by the burning of fossil fuels — cars, factories, power plants — loads the atmosphere with climate-warming greenhouse gas, pushing global mean temperatures higher.

from Photographers' Blog:

An arctic adventure

Wind patterns are left in the ice pack that covers the Arctic Ocean north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska March 19, 2011.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Arctic Ocean in March is basically an ocean of ice. Almost the entire thing is covered from October to June in an icepack that only partially disappears in the summer and is still very solid in March.

Why would anyone in their right mind volunteer to spend a month to a month in a half in temperatures that usually don’t exceed -10 degrees Fahrenheit or -23 degrees Celsius? In the case of the roughly two dozen souls who work either for the British, Canadian and United States Navy or the Arctic Physics Laboratory Ice Station, it is because there is work to be done.

A man carries an ice auger to a remote warming station near the 2011 Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska March 18, 2011.    REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

And the first piece of work is to physically build the camp. To do this, firstly a piece of “multi-year” ice must be found, that means that it is thick enough (theoretically) that it won’t split in half and will support the weight of a camp while having enough room for an airplane runway and helicopter landing pad. Next, these folks need to load an antique airplane with enough plywood and nails to build a half a dozen un-insulated boxes to live in, this usually takes about 3 days as the workers must fly back to their base at Prudhoe Bay each evening to avoid the -30 to -50 degree temperatures until they build enough shelters to house them all.

from Tales from the Trail:

Amidst the shivering in Washington, the case for global warming

WEATHER/OK, it's cold in Washington. It's really cold. And snowy. And blizzardy. It's hard to recall that long-ago moment -- what was it, six days ago? -- when you could go for a walk without cross-country skis and a flask of brandy. But just because it's winter doesn't mean global warming is a myth.

But the storms gave conservatives fresh fodder for mocking former Vice President Al Gore and his efforts on global climate change.  Senator Jim DeMint tweeted "It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries 'uncle'," Politico reported.

For decades, scientists have struggled to explain the difference between weather, which changes in the short term, and climate, which changes over the long term. There's a good explanation at the new government Climate Service Web site called "Short term cooling on a warming planet." The new site went up this week, between blizzards, and is supposed to guide consumers and businesses so they can adapt to climate change. The Climate Service itself is expected to be up and running by the start of the next U.S. fiscal year that begins on October 1.

Fishing for information

The research vessel Professor Khromov is just a few kms off the easternmost point of Siberia, and U.S. technologist Kevin Taylor is struggling to reel in an orange buoy that had been deep beneath the Bering Strait for nearly a year.

The first time he tries, the ship veers too far away from the prize and must make a slow, wide turn for another pass. The second time, Taylor’s hook is not quite ready and the float bobs again into the Khromov’s wake. This takes practice, even in calm waters.

A main task of the RUSALCA expedition, a joint-U.S.-Russian scientific effort taking place in August and September, is to retrieve data-gathering moorings that were dropped 50 meters to the bottom during stormy weather last October, and to leave new ones.

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