Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Weather

Advocacy group's extreme weather map brings climate change home

Climate change much? A new map published today by the Natural Resources Defense Council makes it plain that extreme weather attributable to climate change isn’t something that only happens in other parts of the world. Chances are you’ve had your own Hurricane Irene, or drought, or something like it in your own backyard.

The interactive map lays out 2,941 monthly weather records broken in communities throughout the U.S. from January thru October of this year, and traces an onslaught of severe storms, drought, flooding and calamity. The point is to show how climate change is affecting your community every day.

“We did this analysis because we wanted to aggregate state-by-state what had happened for people, so they could see it on the map,” said Kim Knowlton, senior scientist in the Health and Environment program at the NRDC. “I think it’s pretty stunning: One can see in the Northeast how much record-breaking rainfall; in the South, in particular, how much record-breaking heat. We have icons, too, for drought and wildfire. For snowfall, all over the Midwest and the Northeast.”

An interesting interactive element plays the entire year like a video, showing rain, flood and storms surging across the country.

So what? A weather map of any year might look like this, right?

Not necessarily. These are all record events, so they didn’t happen quite this way before. One of the criteria for the data was that it had to break records at a weather stations with a data record of 30 years or more.

The map, Knowlton said, shows “how climate change could increase either the frequency or the intensity or the extent of some of these unfortunately rather damaging extreme events, and the kind of preparedness steps we need to be taking. Because there is a heck of a lot we can be doing to prepare ourselves to better meet these challenges.”

Like, for instance, pass meaningful climate change legislation. Or, at least, prepare for the consequences of these big events on the health of the populace. Knowlton points out that illness and injury to humans, which can add billions of dollars to the cost of a major weather event, are often not included in damage reports. The NRDC just published a report about this in collaboration with the University of California.

“In concert, the extreme weather map from 2011, plus the climate-health vulnerability map, together give a very rich picture of what we need to think about in the future,” Knowlton said.


New Cook Island shark sanctuary proposed

Barbara Boxer seeks climate-change action from summit

Inupiat whaling, drilling at stake in recent Alaska mayor's race

-- Dean Kuipers

Graphic: An interactive map produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows 2,941 record-breaking weather events recorded across the U.S. from January through October. Credit: Natural Resources Defense Council

Sen. Barbara Boxer seeks climate-change action from summit

Sen. Barbara Boxer at climate change summit

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) stepped up Wednesday to deliver an appeal from Capitol Hill for action at the mostly lackluster U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which wraps up this week in Durban, South Africa. Her speech was delivered to an almost-empty Senate TV/radio gallery, which is indicative of the low priority given ongoing greenhouse gas treaty negotiations by the federal government and the media.

Audience shortfall be damned, Boxer soldiered on, registering her support for urgent action in Durban and beyond, and attacking climate deniers who have slowed progress toward reform. She and 15 other senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton looking for a “strong and ambitious outcome” in Durban.

“Although I am not there with you in person, it in no way lessens my commitment to the work that you are doing in Durban and the importance of your mission to address climate change,” Boxer said. A text of the speech was also provided to the media.

“This massive threat to the environment and human health that is posed by climate change requires us to put aside partisan differences, to find common ground and to demand immediate international action.”

The speech was delivered against a backdrop of years of failed attempts by Congress to pass meaningful legislation that would curb greenhouse gas emissions, or to even set targets for those reductions. The comments addressed directly the United States’ refusal to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which did set reduction targets and which is regarded as a failure of leadership on the part of the U.S., especially in Europe. Key provisions of the Kyoto treaty will expire in 2012 without further action.

Boxer had two main points in her presentation: one, that climate change is already costing us huge money, and two, that global-warming deniers are endangering lives.

On the first point, she cited National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studies that have tracked the cost of large storms and found that from January to August 2011, 10 or more weather disasters caused over $1 billion in damages — a record — and that the country is plagued by widespread drought and wildfires.

She also cited a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists tagging the public health consequences of increased ozone pollution caused by higher temperatures by the year 2020, including: $5.4 billion in increased health costs, 2.8 million more acute respiratory symptoms, and several other startling figures.

Boxer seemed to save particular ire for global-warming deniers, however, saying, “The message I have for climate deniers is this: You are endangering humankind.”

To punch this home, she quoted a Pentagon study saying climate change was real and would have serious impacts on defense, diplomacy and economics.

“It is time for climate deniers to face reality, because the body of evidence is overwhelming and the world’s leading scientists agree,” Boxer said.

The Durban conference ends Friday.


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Brown cloud might be intensifying storms over Indian Ocean

— Dean Kuipers

Photo: U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in the Senate TV/radio room calling for ambitious and credible action at the U.N. climate change conference that ends this week in Durban, South Africa. Credit: U.S. Senate Photo Studio.

U.N. Durban climate conference wrangles over funds for poor nations

DURBAN, South Africa — International climate negotiators were at odds Tuesday on how to raise billions of dollars to help poor countries cope with global warming. A major shipping group is willing to help, endorsing a proposal for a carbon tax on vessels carrying the world's trade.

Details of the tussle over the funding emerged as the U.N.’s weather agency reported that 2011 was tied as the 10th-hottest year since record-keeping began in 1850. Arctic sea ice, a barometer for the entire planet, had shrunk to a record-low volume, said the World Meteorological Organization.

Putting the final touches on what's known as the Green Climate Fund is a top issue at the 192-party U.N. climate conference that was in its second day Tuesday in the South African coastal city of Durban, and one of the keys to a strategy to contain greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming within manageable limits.

The two-week conference is to finalize a plan on managing climate finances, due to scale up to $100 billion annually by 2020.

The International Chamber of Shipping, representing about 80% of the world's merchant marine, joined forces with aid groups Oxfam and WWF International on Tuesday to urge the conference to adopt guidelines for a levy on carbon emissions by ships.

Details of any levy would be worked out by the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency regulating international shipping, the aid groups and the chamber said in a joint statement.

“Shipping has to take responsibility for the emissions and get to grips and drive them down, and they see that the best way to do that is to have a universal charge applied to all ships that is going to generate billions of dollars” to fight climate change, Tim Gore of Oxfam said on the sidelines of the conference.

About 50,000 cargo ships carry 90% of world trade, and most ships are powered by heavily polluting oil known as bunker fuels. Last July the U.N. maritime organization decided that new cargo vessels must meet energy-efficiency standards and cut pollution.

It was the first climate change measure to apply equally to countries regardless of whether they are from the industrialized or developing world.

At the conference, differences came into focus over the Green Climate Fund.

Delegations disagreed about how independent the fund will be, by whom it will be guided and whether the bulk of the money will come from public funds and government aid or from private sources and investments.

A 40-nation committee worked on a draft agreement in several lengthy meetings over the last year, but a consensus at the final meeting last month was blocked by objections from the United States and Saudi Arabia. Now negotiators in Durban must settle the final disputes.

“We are going to have a very thorough and open discussion on that very contentious paper,” said Pedro Pedroso, the delegate from Cuba.

U.S. delegate Jonathan Pershing said Monday that the U.S. has “substantive concerns” about the committee's plan, but “we believe these issues can be fixed.”

Washington wants to ensure that private investments are not hamstrung by bureaucracy and that they can bypass any approval process by governments.

The world temperatures report released Tuesday provided a bleak backdrop to negotiators seeking ways to limit pollution blamed for global warming.

2011 has been a year of extreme weather, the WMO reported. Drought in East Africa has left tens of thousands dead; lethal floods submerged large areas of Asia; the United States suffered 14 separate weather catastrophes with damage topping $1 billion each, including severe drought in Texas and the Southwest, heavy floods in the Northeast and the Mississippi Valley, and the most active tornado season ever known.

“The science is solid and proves unequivocally that the world is warming,” said R.D.J. Lengoasa, the WMO's deputy director, and human activity is a significant contributor.

“Climate change is real, and we are already observing its manifestations in weather and climate patterns around the world,” he said.


Brown cloud might be intensifying cyclones over Indian Ocean

'Snowtober' fits U.N. climate change predictions

NOAA greenhouse gas index climbs

-- Associated Press

Photo: Cyclists power lights on an installation depicting a Baobab tree, part of a renewable-energies display during the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2011 in Durban, South Africa. Credit: Nic Bothma/EPA

Brown cloud might be intensifying storms over Indian Ocean

A longstanding brown cloud of pollution over the Indian Ocean is causing cyclones to intensify in that region, according to a new study published this month in the journal Nature and involving researchers from multiple institutions, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

After the apparent recent increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, including the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, climate watchers everywhere have speculated whether these storms were made stronger by industrial or man-made emissions. This is reportedly the first study to indicate that human activity may, in fact, affect large storms.

Amato Evan, lead author on the study and a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, notes: “The thing that stands out to me, as someone who works in climate and tropical cyclones, is that human activity, things people do, can actually change these massive atmospheric phenomena. To me, this is kind of the first study that can unambiguously tie human activity to something as enormous and powerful as a tropical cyclone.”

The Atmospheric Brown Cloud, previously known as the Asian Brown Cloud, has been observed for decades and began forming prior to World War II. From space, it resembles a dense brown smog and hangs over the northern Indian subcontinent, the northern Bay of Bengal, and the northern Arabian Sea. One of the contributors to the paper, Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, has done some of the most important work on identifying the sources of this pollution, which is made up of particles like black carbon and sulfates and is a product of industrial development but also things as common as wood cookfires from an increasing population.

Cyclones naturally form over the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, but are often limited by wind shear -– the cacophony of short-distance winds moving at different speeds and different directions in the atmosphere. Wind shear can be thought of as turbulence and prevents the cyclones from organizing into powerful storms.

As the brown cloud shades the ocean (called “atmospheric dimming”), however, it affects surface temperatures, which lessen the effects of wind shear. As wind shear effects drop, the storm intensifies. The scientists looked at wind, temperature and satellite data from 1979 to present and correlated the increased pollution to increased storm wind speeds. According to a NOAA press release, five storms in the northern Indian Ocean since 1998 have had winds over 120 mph –- including category 5 Cyclone Gonu in 2007  — and have killed more than 3,500 people and caused over $6.5 billion in damage.

James Kossin, a climatologist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Ashville, N.C., and co-author on the study, cautions that it’s early to say smog causes bad storms. “It’s a hypothesis. It’s difficult to say with much certainty, and I think our main hurdle there is just a small sample of storms to look at. The results are very suggestive.”

“It gets into a tricky business when you want to start saying, ‘Here is the cost of that pollution associated with the tropical cyclones.’ That’s probably stretching it a bit far,” adds Evan. “But certainly it’s true in the Atlantic Ocean and it’s true anywhere: a bigger, stronger storm generally causes more damage.”

For Evan, the study has a significant upside: the pollutants that may be intensifying these cyclones are short-term, unlike greenhouse gases. They float into the lower or middle atmosphere and would clear out very quickly if emissions are cut.

“If emissions are reduced, we expect that this kind of trend would reverse on time scales of a few months,” Evans says. “It’s not like greenhouse gases, where we think we’re already in trouble. With these kinds of aerosols, if you just stopped all the emissions right now, the atmosphere would become much cleaner in a matter of weeks. And then the whole climate system, the ocean and the atmosphere, would essentially lose memory of those aerosols. It’s pretty dramatic.”

In an interesting side note, emails related to this study were among those listed in a recent FOIA request by the conservative American Traditions Institute as it investigates climate change science published by the former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann. The ATI has close ties to energy interests that have opposed climate legislation, and the so-called "Climategate" matter has been the subject of previous posts on this blog.


Greenhouse gases, water vapor and you

Another 'Climategate' inquiry clears professors

Judge restricts release of emails among climate scientists

-- Dean Kuipers

Photo: A NOAA satellite image showing Hurricane Katrina near the Louisiana-Mississippi border. Credit: EPA/NOAA

'Snowtober' fits U.N. climate change predictions


While the Northeast is still reeling from a surprise October snowstorm that has left more than a million people without power for days, the United Nations is about to release its latest document on adaptation to climate change.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected conclude that there is a high probability that man-made greenhouse gases already are causing extreme weather that has cost governments, insurers, businesses and individuals billions of dollars. And it is certain to predict that costs due to extreme weather will rise and some areas of the world will become more perilous places to live.

Federal climate scientists have labeled 2011 as one of the worst in American history for extreme weather, with punishing blizzards, epic flooding, devastating drought and a heat wave that has broiled a huge swath of the country. Weather related losses amounted to more than $35 billion even before the Nor'easter shellacked the East Coast.

Among the more costly events in the U.S. this year was the flooding of the Mississippi River and tributaries due to rapid melting of the Rocky Mountain snowpack and early spring rains. That event, which prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open a Mississippi River spillway and flood more than 4,000 acres in Louisiana, caused billion of dollars in direct damage.

April also spawned 875 tornado reports nationwide, well above the 30-year average for the month of 135. The "super outbreak," as climatologists dubbed it, killed 327 people.

Drought in Texas has caused more than $5.4 billion in damage to the cattle industry alone, driving up beef prices, while wildfires consumed 2 million acres. A heat wave throughout much of the country caused 29 states to issue heat advisories in July. Nationwide, the hot spell was blamed for scores of deaths.

The "Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation" will be released Nov. 18. It builds on the climate change panel's previous assessments of the Earth's climate, and is intended to help governments and policymakers boost preparedness for extreme weather events.


Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt temperature data

Forest biofuel projects could increase West Coast carbon emissions

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Children in New Smithville, Pa., make the best of a freak fall snowstorm that cut power to more than 3 million people from Virginia to Maine. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Arctic ice shrinks to near-record low

A blistering summer melted Arctic sea ice to near-record lows, and scientists say two more weeks of high temperatures could bring ice coverage in the polar region to the lowest since satellite measurements were first taken in 1979.

That's the grim assessment released Thursday by the National Climatic Data Center, which also calculated that last month's global temperatures amounted to the eighth-warmest August on record. Federal forecasters predicted a return to La Nina conditions, bringing slightly drier and warmer weather to much of the country.

The sea ice melt in August was the second most extensive, and with a few more weeks left of melting it's possible that the record lows of 2007 could be matched, according to Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Heat and aridity records were bested across the United States this summer where every state except North Dakota and Vermont reported at least one day of 100-degree readings. Texas was the hardest hit: 88 of 92 days of summer exceeded 100 degrees in Wichita Falls.

Texas state climatologist John  Nielsen-Gammon said an average of 10 inches of rain has fallen across the state in the last 11 months. If Texas does not receive 3-1/2 inches of rain in the next two weeks, 2011 will go in the record books as the state's driest ever.


Texas wildfires: Is drought the new climate?

Rising sea levels could take financial toll on California beaches

Global warming effect seen in pole-to-pole data-gathering flights

-- Julie Cart

Photo: From 3,000 to 4,000 walruses died in stampedes on the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea in 2007, after they were stranded on land due to a lack of sea ice. Credit: Anatoly A. Kochnev / Pacific Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography


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