Thursday, August 30, 2007

Does widespread breaking of weather records mean anything?

Continuing in question mode....well does it???
Planet Ark puts it all into some perspective

The significance of these records is that they are actually occurring in the real world - rather than in the forecasts generated by computer mathematical models of the global climate.

That marks a major shift. For the initial decade of the climate change problem (from the first report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990), the effects of global warming, such as extreme heatwaves and downpours, were seen as future events which the climate models predicted. They were thus much easier for sceptics to dismiss.

But, in recent years, extreme and record-breaking real events, entirely consistent with global warming predictions, have started to mount up - beginning with the remarkable heatwave of August 2003, which caused 35,000 excess deaths in France and northern central Europe.

That episode, the first event whose severity was ascribed by scientists directly to climate change, only just caught Britain with its edge.

But even so, it broke the UK's air temperature record on 10 August 2003, pushing it for the first-time ever over 100F, to 101.3F, or 38.5C. The previous record (set in 1990) was 98.8F or 37.1C. Thus the jump to the new record was 2.5F, or 1.4C - an absolutely enormous leap.

Some of the records of the past 14 months which we detail today are of similar astonishing dimensions. In particular, April 2007 and the summer just ended produced quite unprecedented weather for Britain - with quite unprecedented effects.

April was so warm (contributing to the warmest spring on record) that the natural world was put completely out of sync: swifts arrived (from Africa) a month early, as did the hawthorn flowers - known as May - which prompted suggestions they should be renamed April blossom.

Wetland restoration - in time or too late?

The San Francisco Bay is rimmed with barely above sea level landfill where marshes used to be. Wetlands and estuaries are important buffers against storm surge and many tens of thousands of acres around the Bay now have residential, commercial and transportation infrastructure build on them. Many more acres have been serving as salt evaporation ponds.

Now SF Gate reports that a local environmental group founded 45 years ago - Save the Bay - just issued a report urging local governments to put a plan together to restore over 36,000 acres of wetlands by the year 2050. The land to be restored has been purchased over the past decade, but now over $1.4 billion needs to be raised for the actual restoration.

This is an entirely right and noble process, but you can see how slowly it is planned to progress, and you can get an idea of the cost of restoring wetlands. All of the current wetlands - including these newly restored ones - will be submerged if the sea level rises, of course.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wait and see in Carolina. Except for insurers

In North Carolina, home and property insurance companies have decided that the risk of a Cat 4 or 5 hurricane striking the state is high enough that higher rates are justified. (Here's Hurricane Alex off the Outer Banks in August 2004 from the Weather Radars page.)
But government planners from FEMA and within the state are still sifting the evidence before taking any action that would help defend the state from exceptional hurricane damage. From the News Observer:

The state's long-range emergency planning doesn't take into account future changes in hurricane activity because the link remains uncertain. Neither do the state's largest utilities, Progress Energy and Duke Energy, which react to individual storms.

"It's a great area to debate," said Ed Jenkins, manager of the planning branch for the state Division of Emergency Management. "I'm not convinced that we need to start battening down the hatches and start preparing for something that the scientific community is still debating."

Thanks to the Intersection for the link.

Report recommends improved hurricane defense

The Center for American Progress (parent organization to the Climate Progress blog) just released a report outlining steps that communities and governmental agencies must take to reduce the damage that will be sustained if and when powerful hurricanes strike. The report, titled Forecast: Storm Warnings includes:

...recommendations for proven steps that communities can undertake to significantly reduce the devastation that hurricanes can suddenly deliver to those in the paths of these storms. We also outline essential steps that the federal government must take to assist cities and towns on the frontline of global warming.

So, the report serves, first, as an effort to communicate the urgency of the situation to policy makers and planners. Hurricanes stand to become more powerful, threatening more coastal locations than before. Losses could be much higher than we're used to on average. The second purpose is to recommend some specific actions for protecting coastal communities from catastrophic damage. The recommendations here have come under some question from Chris Mooney of the Intersection.

I really like the Center, but I must say I find their recently released hurricanes-and-global warming report a tad disappointing. Oddly, in my view the report is both too incautious with the science and yet also far too cautious when it comes to the policy. The complexities and uncertainties aren't really limned on the science front. And then while there's lots of talk about community-based preparedness measures, nothing CAP suggests (in my reading) would adequately prepare us for the mega-disasters that will result when--not if, but when--intense hurricanes directly hit Houston/Galveston, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Miami, New York--or New Orleans again. Measures at the community level are not going to suffice to protect cities like these. We need big thinking to prevent cities from going under water.

Funk, Chinese and New Orleans style

The funk in China is everywhere - the air, the water, the ground - and efforts to curtail its increase must compete with the profit motive. The profit motive seems to be winning, hands-down. But how long can this go on? From a story in the NY Times.

But just as the speed and scale of China’s rise as an economic power have no clear parallel in history, so its pollution problem has shattered all precedents.

The funk in New Orleans is in the mood. The city has, for all practical purposes, been abandoned. Most former residents don't plan to return. Those who have moved back and are trying to rebuild find themselves living in ghost towns. Story from the Washington Post.

Today, nearly two years after the storm, 11 of 14 properties on the block stand vacant, and in interviews, all but one of those who left indicated they have no intention of returning. Far from rising from the devastation of Katrina, this slice of St. Bernard Parish remains a desolate and depressing place.

Coal - stop the madness

I don't write much about the effort to curtail carbon emissions, but we must never forget that coal is the enemy. Unless we drastically reduce the amount of carbon emissions from burning coal to generate power, we stand little to no chance of reducing the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. We're worsening our prospects with every day the present coal burning pace continues, and we're looking at a huge planned expansion of coal burning here and especially in China.

So this Washington Post article, written by Jeff Goodell primarily in response to the Utah mine tragedy, is a great hard-hitting piece about the coal industry as a whole, and about it's role in global warming in particular.

There's a Plan C

It won't be enough to just switch energy sources so that we can continue to live our lives as usual, only cleaner. We're going to need to cut back on our consumption on many levels. That's the way it looks to me, given the limits we're discovering. One way of cutting back at the individual and family level is to share and cooperate with others. Live as active communities.

One organization exists to present the public with such a vision. The Community Solution sees it like this:

While Plans A and B seek to maintain unsustainable levels of resource consumption through energy alternatives, Plan C advocates for cultural change.

Plan A – More and dirtier fuels like tar sands, oil shale, coal-to-liquids, and “clean” coal (bury CO2) to keep up with growing energy consumption.

Plan B – The "clean and green" approach proposes using large-scale renewables like wind, solar, biofuels and hydrogen to maintain our high energy way of life and keep us complacent and consuming.

Plan C – Our strategy of culture change, conservation and curtailment.

Through reductions in resource consumption, dramatic conservation and curtailment of energy use coupled with an increase in local community living we can survive peak oil and create a sustainable world in its wake. Plan C addresses many of today’s issues head on and reduces the impetus for war. Our solutions look at how each individual can make a difference, reduce CO2 emissions, and help bring peace to the world.

For 12 years I lived with hundreds of others in a Plan C lifestyle. It was mostly enjoyable. I made many lifelong friends, learned a lot and used way less resources than the average American. I still prefer to live lightly on the earth. And ultimately it's true: You can't take it with you.

Monday, August 27, 2007

If you can't move the river from the community...

...you can move the community farther away from the river. I'm sure, over human history, this has been done millions of times. But in today's America, where human ingenuity and brute force technology have been aimed for over 200 year at conquering the forces of Nature, the actual relocation of an entire town is rare. We've built levees along the rivers where floods used to occur normally. We've built countless towns and housing developments - even factories - on flood plains.

If, as we expect, flooding in some places is to become more common and more severe, with more extreme storms and rising sea levels, then the moving of human habitat to safe and dry locations will soon become a pressing need. We do have an example, and it was initiated by the residents - not the authorities.

This summer, the flooding in the American Midwest became ridiculous. Even towns that had been willing to put up with the threat of a hundred-year flood possibility got more than they'd bargained for. But one town was high and dry and feeling pretty good about itself. It had dodged the bullet by moving to a higher elevation 25 years ago.

Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, a village of over 600 residents, had been flooded by the Kickapoo River 6 times in 60 years. The straw that broke he camel's back was the flood of 1978. The town had already purchased some hilltop land nearby, and with the impetus of the flood behind them, the town leaders began applying for government funding for building a new version of the town where the floods could not reach.

Joe Romm of Climate Progress was involved in this project, where the new town was mandated to include active and passive solar features as part of the conditions for funding. Below are pictures of the original business district of Soldiers Grove and the current DRY and solar district.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Europe - fires, flood planning and policy making

Never underestimate how fast a fire can move through vegetation in a state of drought. In Greece, following weeks of extreme heat, wildfires have roared through rugged terrain, killing at least 49 people.

Hot, dry seasonal winds drove the flames across a landscape parched by successive heat waves. Reduced winds and a slight dip in temperatures were forecast for Sunday.

The fires were so severe that authorities said they could not yet provide an estimate of how much damage they had caused, nor what expanse of land had been burned.

Meanwhile, in England, where towns are still reeling from this summer's flooding, a report by the Hull City Council called for a national program to improve defenses against more extreme flooding that will come with climate change. The defenses suggested would mainly be improved drainage systems, able to handle a once-every-30-years flood.

Over 7,200 homes and 1,300 businesses were damaged in Hull during its wettest June since 1882.

The low-lying city relies on a system of pumps to keep flooding at bay, and the report questioned whether the existing capacity was capable of handling a 1 in 30 year storm.

Finally, from Germany comes word that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is currently enjoying her highest popularity since taking office, pledged to fight climate change in the second half of her term. Yes, it may just be policitics, but let's hope not.
The centrepiece of the cabinet's plans is a list of energy saving measures to fight climate change which will help reduce CO2 emissions by 36 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels.

"For the first time in the history of modern Germany, we have moved beyond defining goals towards agreeing on concrete steps on climate change," Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel told German television.

Although it will take up to a year to pass the new laws, Germany wants to set the tone for the global climate debate ahead of a U.N. meeting in Bali in December which will try to launch new talks for the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

How our government keeps us blind

No wonder so many people remain uninformed and unconvinced.

A Federal District Judge has "busted" Bush's White House for withholding a report on global warming that was supposed to have been revised, reassessed and released to the public two years ago. Even so, the punishment amounted to less than a slap on the wrist.

The Bush administration violated federal law by missing deadlines to produce a study on the impact of global warming, now as much as two years overdue, and must issue a summary by March, a federal judge ruled. Judge Saundra B. Armstrong of Federal District Court in Oakland, Calif., said the United States government “unlawfully withheld action” required under the Global Change Research Act of 1990 to update a research plan and scientific assessment of climate change. The law mandates that the research plan be revised every three years and the assessment every four years; the last research plan was in 2003 and the last assessment was published in 2000.

Singing in the Rain II

John Hiatt writes and performs some very funky music. For a while, his band, the Goners, included awesome slide guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth. Here's their version of John's composition (made famous by the Eric Clapton/BB King collaboration) Ridin' With the King.

Fierce storms ravage U.S.

Maybe it's just been a bad year for weather, but this sounds exceptionally bad. One wonders how towns and regional populations will deal with repeated onslaughts of weather like this. I've seen local flooding here in Marin County and the repercussions go on for years. And that's without any fatalities.

...in the weekend storms, at least six people died in Oklahoma, including the wife of the chairman of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and two other relatives, who drowned when their Dodge Caravan was swept away by swirling waters. Eight others died in Texas, including two in the collapse of a supermarket roof outside Houston.

In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared a state of emergency on Sunday for six southeastern counties where heavy rain produced flash flooding and mudslides, washing out roads and bridges and sweeping away houses. Six people were reported dead as of Monday morning and a 37-year-old man was missing.

Eight to 11 inches of rain fell in Minnesota, and at least three towns were evacuated, emergency officials said, with national forecasters warning that showers and isolated thunderstorms “will irritate already high river and stream levels and flooded areas.”

On Monday, Gov. Mike Rounds of South Dakota also declared a state of emergency after finding that damage from heavy rainfall, flooding and hail was worse than originally thought. No lives were lost but about 50 homes were reported damaged.

In Winona County, Minn., where some county roads remained closed Monday, the Red Cross estimated that 6,375 families were affected by the storms.

Citizens march against housing on flood plains

It's always cool when citizens take matters into their own hands to force their political reps to do the right thing. Here's a story from the BBC about residents of Tewksbury, one of the worst-hit towns by the recent flooding, marching to call attention to a policy which would allow new housing to be built on locations that the flooding showed to be at risk. Said one citizen,

It is a difficult problem, but it does need the government to look at the issue again to review its policy on building on flood plains because it just seems to the average person a nonsensical thing to do.
As it turns out, local planning committees need the agreement of the Environmental Agency before allowing new building where there is a risk of flooding.

China desertification check-in

The Chinese government has planted billions of trees and imposed strict regulations on land use in an attempt to stem the encroachment of desert into agricultural lands. After years of optimistic public relations statements, the government is now sounding the retreat and relocating farmers so that their land can be planted with grasses that, hopefully, will accomplish what previous efforts have not. Here's the story as reported on Treehugger.

Experts have laid the blame for the increased desertification alternately at the feet of deforestation and overfarming, though some are now concerned that global warming could play a larger role in the near future — a consequence of the melting Tibetan glaciers.

Urgency Update

After the previous upbeat post, which emphasized the celebratory potential of energy independence and sustainable living, there's still the stark reality of climate change and how it's going to affect us and our species' future on the planet. Warning: this post is relatively long.

If you've been following this blog at all, you know that its central premise is that the impacts of changing climate on human habitability are more likely to happen within a shorter time frame than people think. In some ways, not much has changed since I launched Climate Frog 5 months ago. But in other ways - as the reporting and interpretation and ongoing weather events are showing - the urgency of the situation has continued to escalate.

For the vast majority of us, the near future may not persuade us that the wolf is at the door. We won't be the victims of a category 5 hurricane, as the Yucatan just was. We won't be the victims of catastrophic flooding as so many global locations have been over the past 3 months. We won't find ourselves the victims of continuing years-long drought and record-breaking heatwaves, as many regional populations currently are. But the odds of at least one of those impacts landing on us are growing with every year that the carbon concentration in the atmosphere increases. That - in spite of what the Denyers (using Joe Romm's spelling) claim is yet unproven.

And speaking of Joe Romm, he has just posted two articles to his blog (with a third article on the way) responding to the question, "Are Scientists Overestimating — or Underestimating — Climate Change?" Here's the first article, and here's the second. If you have any doubts about the answer, I urge you to read these and check here soon for the third installment.

In essence, Joe is pointing out that even the IPCC reports fail to incorporate the amplifying feedbacks that rising global temperatures generate. There are many scientifically proven by-products of warming, especially at the poles and higher elevations where the melting of ice and the thawing of permafrost lead to yet more warming and release of more carbon. These amplifying feedbacks are happening now, and have advanced the disappearance of ice at the North Pole beyond what the IPCC reports predicted. In other words, we are further along the path to catastrophic and irreversible climate change impacts than the most widely accepted studies have projected. This also means that the process is moving faster and the remedies need to be implemented sooner and more completely.

The secondary premise of this blog is that humanity has the capacity to counteract the worst case outcome of climate change, but has not shown the collective wisdom to respond to the threatening situation. This sluggish response may someday be analyzed by our heirs as the result of poor leadership, bad communications, dysfunctional politics and sheer laziness due to affluence. We have a window of opportunity within which we can make radical changes in our energy policies and lifestyles, but I see little sign that we are paying attention on a large enough scale to make a dent in the relentless slide into climate crisis.

I'm hoping to provide enough practical guidance through this blog to stir activism on a local level to prepare for the most likely first wave of climate impact. You people living in the American Southwest are already in the midst of your version of climate change. Many of you across the Great Plains, from Texas up through Ohio, have just experienced horrendous flooding in what may be your version. And everywhere that record heatwaves and drought are baking your lawns and making you miserable - you may need to get used to those conditions during your future summers.

The Climate Frog senses that something is terribly wrong and clambers out of the pot just in time. If you sense that something is wrong, you should be clambering by insisting that your local political representatives at all levels start taking appropriate action, not only to put a quick halt to the most prolific carbon emissions, but also to begin preparation for what may be a continually worsening climate situation for your region or for regions you depend on.

The harsh reality could be that some heavily populated areas will prove uninhabitable over the long haul. I've been to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and I can tell you - even in this day and age, in America - some locations may be lost to us as homes in this new climatic era.

We have a chance NOW to do something effective about it. Don't listen to people who tell you there's nothing to worry about, or that we've got plenty of time to wait and see. But remember: in spite of the gloomy scenarios, the work to save our ability to thrive on this planet need not be grim. We have an uplifting opportunity to change our priorities and collaborate as a species to save our home.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Solfest - celebrating sustainable living in NorCal

The small village of Hopland, California stradles the Redwood Highway, about a 2-hour drive north of San Francisco. The presence of the redwoods is just starting to come on when you reach Hopland, but you approach the town with vinyards, not trees, blanketing much of the open space. The road takes a long gentle curve to the right and then you see the huge photovoltaic array directed at the southern sky. They call the array Solar 2000, and it sells power (160,000 kWh annually) into the grid to provide income for Solar Living Institute (SLI), the non-profit organization that runs the Solar Living Center, whose 12-acre facility beyond the solar panels was marked by an interesting variety of trees.

Last Saturday I was there at Solfest, "the Greenest Show on Earth," an annual cross-gathering of tribes representing appropriate technology, craftmaking, homesteading and music. This was Solfest #12, but it was my first. I've been to Solar Living Center and the store that was the seed for it all - Real Goods - on many occasions over the 24 years I've lived in California.

In many respects, Solfest is both an exhibition and party thrown by the rural residents of Mendocino County. I've got strong, working hippie roots from 12 years living on the Farm and I know there are now three generations of hippie culture thriving in the forests of northern California. Around a few small towns like Ukiah, Eureka and Fort Bragg, the settlements in this region are far flung, with a strong sense of local organization combined with homesteader-like independence and self reliance. Solar energy, composting, home gardens, building with natural materials and biofuel are not just curious experiments to these people; they are all survival technologies for the living in the boondocks.

Though Solfest may not be familiar to many outside of California (an informal raising-of-hands poll done by the founder, John Shaeffer, in his welcome speech indicated very few attendees from outside of Northern Cal.) the festival probably represents the most powerful representation of how high tech is being adapted for sustainable living. Solfest is also a great example of how adopting sustainable living practices can be celebrated rather than regarded as a desperation obligation in the face of looming catastrophe. And in that respect, it reminded me of the upside of moving in the sustainable direction.

Climate Frog is about getting out of the pot before the water gets too hot, but it's also about the joy of getting out of that confinding pot.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Jeff Masters tracks Hurricane Dean

The most detailed and descriptive information on current hurricane status and danger can be found in the Wunder Blog of Dr. Jeff Masters. Right now, Hurricane Dean is leaving damage on Martinique and entering the Carribean as a Category 2 storm. Masters believes it will develop into a Cat 4 storm before hitting Jamaica. Beyond that, there are several models projecting different paths through or past the Yucatan. If it ends up following Tropical Depression Erin into southern Texas, we may see some extreme flood damage there, since Erin has already dumped 10 inches on San Antonio and the soil of the region is saturated.

And following on my article about New Orleans, there is a slim possibility that Dean will track toward Louisiana. If you live there, what are you thinking today?

New Orleans lessons, continued...

The New York Times has been publishing a series of stories leading up to the 2nd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, following the "recovery" and storm defense improvements that have been - and are still - taking place. The article includes a collection of maps by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) that show projected flood security for the different areas of the city.

I looking at New Orleans' situation as a loose model for what other metropolitan regions may go through when they become identified as potential victims of major storms. New Orleans is special, of course, because so much of the city and its outlying neighborhoods are below sea level. As the sea level rises, other coastal areas will find themselves in a similar situation, and their citizens will have to go through the stressful decision making that current NO residents and dealing with.

“If people were looking for a quick and easy answer — is it safe? — there is no easy answer,” said David E. Daniel, the president of the University of Texas at Dallas and the head of a panel that monitors the corps’ investigation of the Katrina disaster.

Some can live with thoughtful uncertainty more comfortably than others. Marion LaNasa, a homeowner in Lakeview, said he loves New Orleans and cannot imagine being happy anywhere else. “If you were really smart, would you stay?” he asked. “Probably not. But there’s more to life than assured comfort and no risk.”

As far as the work being done, chiefly by the USACE, much has been done, but there's plenty left to do and no gS Army Corps of Engineers (uarantee that another strong storm won't be able to overcome new and reinforced defenses.
Col. Jeffrey A. Bedey, commander of the corps’ Hurricane Protection Office, acknowledged that the work so far has been piecemeal, because the scale of project is so enormous. The drive to provide protection against that 1-in-100 storm by 2011, Colonel Bedey said, is more thorough.

He said the maps that will predict the impact of that work, which could be published before the end of August, “should show Upper Gentilly looking very good,” and much of the rest of the city besides.

And so, he said, the analysis that many people will have to make is, “Am I really willing to take the risk between 2007 and 2011” that no big storm will overpower the work done so far?

That requires more than an analysis of risk; it requires a calculus of hope. And it is not a question that needs to be asked only in New Orleans. It is the same question that comes up when a steam pipe in New York City explodes or a bridge 1,200 miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans collapses. Getting infrastructure right is hard, and keeping it strong takes vigilance. And that means safety, uncomfortably, is a relative thing.



Thursday, August 16, 2007

Gratuitous hurricane video

I know....how crass....or just trying to be scary, like those scientists.

Guilty as charged, but watch this anyway. It's by National Geographic....just some footage of situations you don't want anyone to be in.

Ask your local officials

Curious to see if anyone at the Marin County offices of Planning and Community Development had any inside knowledge about preparation for climate change, I entered the Frank Lloyd Wright designed edifice and acted like the curious but concerned citizen that I am. I'd already reviewed what was on the County's Web site as the Sustainability Team portal. Some people, at least, had read the 1998 IPCC report, and there are programs in place meant to reduce the County's overall ecological footprint (currently at about 21 acres per capita - slightly lower than the U.S. national average of about 23) but there was no mention of sea level rise in spite of our having over 50 miles of coastline and segments of our main highway lying just above today's sea level.

I had conversations with managers in both the Planning and Community Development offices. The fellow in Planning expressed a little embarrassment that nothing was included in the most recent County Plan dealing with the future potential of flooding from a rising SF Bay. He felt some confidence that the issue would soon be addressed in some way.

"Would the initiative be most likely to come down from the state government, seeing as how all of California's coast would be at risk?" I asked.

Probably more likely the opposite, was his guess. That the counties would have to bring the issue up to the state and put it in their laps.

In the Community Development office, I engaged a nice young guy who wanted to assure me that there were green building codes and efforts to reduce emissions at the county level. It took me a while to get the point made that I wasn't looking for mitigation actions, but for preparedness. He had no idea. Right now, approval for building a house at 2 feet above sea level would not be affected at all by future projections of sea level rise. It's just not in the computer yet.

Don't dither. Take action

When you're convinced, like me, that there's sufficient evidence and logic that we're at high risk in from so many related climate forces, it's frustrating as hell to see our leaders and our neighbors doing nothing. I was at least a little encouraged to read this guest essay on Gristmill by Herman E. Daly, an ecological economist and professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, who is a featured expert in the new film, 11th Hour.

Here's the crux of what he says about not taking any action if there are any unresolved arguments about scientific findings.

As long as we focus on measuring inherently uncertain empirical consequences, rather than on the certain first principles that cause them, we will overwhelm the consensus to "do something now" with the second order uncertainties of "first knowing the exact consequences of what we might someday do."

To put it another way, if you bail out of an airplane, you need a crude parachute more than an accurate altimeter. And if you also happen to take an altimeter with you, at least don't become so bemused in tracking your descent that you forget to pull the ripcord on your parachute.

We'll NEVER achieve absolute certainty about the future. It wasn't certain that Hurricane Katrina would be a certain category of storm or that it would land at a particular point on the Gulf Coast until it happened. But history shows that preparation was delayed on many fronts due to less than perfect prediction. That's the stupidest of human responses. We've got to do better than that. As Daly says in the last paragraphs of his essay,
Setting policy in accord with first principles allows us to act now without getting mired in endless delays caused by the uncertainties of complex empirical measurements and predictions. Of course, the uncertainties do not disappear. We will experience them as surprising consequences, both agreeable and disagreeable, necessitating mid-course correction to the policies enacted on the basis of first principles. But at least we will have begun moving in the right direction.

To continue business as usual, while debating the predictions of complex models in a world made even more uncertain by the way we model it, is to fail to pull the ripcord. The predicted consequences of this last failure, unfortunately, are very certain.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Weather impacts today - Japan, N. Korea, Bangladesh, Sudan, Norway

Lots of extreme weather news on the wires.

Record high temps and an extended heatwave are "baking" Japan.
A relentless heatwave scorched Japan on Wednesday as temperatures hit record highs in many regions amid concerns of a possible power shortage in metropolitan Tokyo due to a shutdown of a key nuclear reactor. In Tatebayashi city, 70 km (44 miles) north of the capital, the temperature rose to 40.2 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), just below the historical high of 40.8 C marked in 1933, government's Meteorological Agency said.
Estimated 300,000 homeless in North Korea after floods.
North Korea, which has suffered chronic food shortages for years, said hundreds were dead or missing after flooding over the past several days that washed away thousands of structures and ruined cropland in the country's agricultural bread basket. The North's official KCNA news agency quoted an agricultural ministry official as saying on Wednesday the damage to farm crops was heavier than in previous floods, with more than 11 percent of paddy and maize fields submerged, buried or swept away.
Spreading illness marks aftermath of flooding in Bangladesh and Northeast India
More than 53,000 people have contracted diarrhoea in Bangladesh, mostly caused by eating stale food and drinking impure water. A field hospital has been opened in the capital, Dhaka, to treat diarrhoea patients. "The overall diarrhoea situation is grim. Everyday there is a rush of patients," said Ayesha Khatoon, a senior official at the government's health directorate. "We are trying to cope with it."
Sudan's flooding has led to a cholera outbreak
The death toll from a cholera outbreak spread by devastating floods in east Sudan has risen to 53 with a
total of 763 cases identified, Sudanese health officials said on Wednesday. Sudan's health ministry is distributing chlorine to sterilise water, repairing latrines and spraying insecticides to try to stop the spread of cholera and malaria after the worst floods in living memory.
Flooding is devastating parts of Norway

"This is completely unreal," said Ronald Havsten after watching his home sail down the Lauvnes river in Flatanger and head towards the sea.
***
Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Administration regional director Einar Sæterbø said that water levels in the region were well over so-called 'five-year flood' norms and were nearing 50-year flood levels, that is, flooding of a type seen only twice a century.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

FEMA to the rescue

As category 3 Hurricane Flossie bears down on Hawaii, FEMA is publicizing its high state of readiness:
Hurricane Flossie

Anticipating Flossie, the Federal Emergency Management Agency dispatched a 20-person advance emergency response team that arrived in Hawaii on Monday, spokeswoman Kim Walz said. The team includes specialists in areas of transportation, aviation, public works and health.

"Instead of waiting for an actual disaster and then going in and providing support, we want to be ready," she said. "We've begun to move resources into place ahead of time to be prepared."

Floods hamper barge traffic in Germany

More side effects from a probable impact of climate change.

Shipping was halted on part of the Rhine river after heavy rains pushed water levels 1 meter (3.3 feet) past their maximum limit for the first summer in 29 years.

Barge captains have been told not to sail between Basel, Switzerland, where the river starts, and the German city of Mannheim in the state of Baden Wurttemberg, Kai Kempmann, the head of Freiburg's waterways department, said today by phone.

The river connects Rotterdam, Europe's largest oil port, with industrial facilities in France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Germany is Europe's most important barge market, accounting for 25 percent of inland waterborne transportation.

"The floods are hampering trade and transport,'' said Peter Kulsen, a consultant at PJK International BV in the Netherlands, which tracks freight rates. ``Discussions for loading and lifting early next week have had to be delayed.''

The insurers are assessing

As they say on the Climate and Insurance Web site,

The National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies has created this website as a resource for industry professionals to learn more about climate change and its possible implications for the property/casualty industry.

The site does not take a position on the scientific controversy of the causes (including whether global warming is to blame) for the increase in natural disasters around the world.
The site posts news releases and stories that come more from the policy and scientific side, rather than reports of actual disasters and obliquely related information as Climate Frog (also) presents. In the developed world - where "insurance" is something you buy - the information provided by ClimateAndInsurance is relevant. Not so much in places like Bangladesh and Sudan.

But like Climate Frog, ClimateAndInsurance hopes to learn by watching the news trends.

Let's talk Accountability

Here's another story that illustrates why I believe we're going to suffer some serious impacts before people get serious about preparing for them. Just look at all the other messes we're entagled with.

This story just appeared in the Financial Times: Learn from the fall of Rome, US warned.

Surely this comes from someone outside the U.S. Government, probably some outspoken politician in Europe, right?

Nope, it's the comptroller general of the U.S. - the head of the Government Accountability Office, trying to get the attention of the president and congress about the awful straits our national budget is in.

The US government is on a ‘burning platform’ of unsustainable policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon, the country’s top government inspector has warned.

David Walker, comptroller general of the US, issued the unusually downbeat assessment of his country’s future in a report that lays out what he called “chilling long-term simulations”.

These include “dramatic” tax rises, slashed government services and the large-scale dumping by foreign governments of holdings of US debt.

Even without the needs to transform industry, automobiles, energy generation, flood defenses, water supplies, etc. to reduce the risks of future climate change, we've got a full plate of neglected crises that will come with boomer retirement, expiring infrastructure, shifting demographics, immigration....the list goes on. And we've got a government that ties itself in knots rather than make any progress.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Flooding: Southern Norway, Burkina Faso, South China

There's only so much you can do when the flooding exceeds all previous experience. Maybe we should all assume that we're going to be seeing the worst flooding in our lifetimes, no matter how unlikely. The question is, do you invest in protection from such anomalies?

The wettest summer on record is swamping southern Norway.

Several homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, and cars swept away, not least after a dam broke at the lake known as Store Kaldingen. That sent torrents of water rushing down the Nordraak River (Nordraakselva), which in turn unleashed rocks and earth along the way.
In northern Burkina Faso, homes, schools and other infrastructure has been washed away in 14 villages.
"We are making a cry from the heart for help," Amade Belem, the permanent secretary for the national council for emergency aid, told IRIN.
"The situation is chaotic as in some areas we have never seen such heavy rains before," he said. "Many people have lost everything."
Flooding from a fading tropical storm took out 3600 houses in China while landslides threatened hundreds of residents in the north where flooding has plagued the area for weeks.
Tropical storm Pabuk, which hit Hong Kong at the weekend, brought rain to southeastern coastal provinces, offering temporary relief to the lingering drought there. But it also caused floods across the southern province of Guangdong, toppling the houses and affecting about 1.2 million people, Xinhua news agency said.

A city called Gobiville?

Karl Shroeder, a blogger for WorldChanging, writes about ecosystem services in this interesting column titled Colonizing Planet Earth. While the most pessimistic among us are floating the idea that humans will need to colonize Mars and other planets as a refuge from the mess we'll be leaving behind here on Earth, Karl wonders why we don't put all that effort to learn how to live in unhospitable environments to work right here. Save all the shipping and transpo costs and create habitable living environments in places that heretofore haven't been.

Say, the Gobi Desert. There would be no one claiming first settlers rights in the midst of such an expanse of sand and dryness. Our challenge wherever we migrate will be to reproduce the living conditions of earth by providing ecosystem services - drinkable water, livable temperature range, breathable air, vegetation, agriculture. Here on earth, we are wrecking our natural services, and even if we can turn current trends around, we'll need to buy some time as the environment heals.

I'd much rather spend the money on fixing up our current home than on figuring out how to move to a completely new neighborhood in or beyond the Solar System.

An effort to make more usable risk assessment

Climate Frog is basically about two location-based situations:

  1. Preparing appropriately for changing climate
  2. Responding effectively to climate change
If the impact hasn't hit you yet, you have to trust the forecasts for what those impacts will be. And there's the rub - forecasts are not compelling, and their credibility is challenged for good and bad reasons by skeptics, politically-motivated hecklers and people in denial about the possibility that things could change so radically in their lives.

So it's good that scientists are beginning to change the ways they forecast risk so that people and their governments can make better-informed choices about preparing for what's coming.

This Reuters report describes one such effort.
Scientists are trying to improve predictions about the impact of global warming this century by pooling estimates about the risk of floods or desertification.

"We feel certain about some of the aspects of future climate change, like that it is going to get warmer," said Matthew Collins of the British Met Office. "But on many of the details it's very difficult to say.

"The way we can deal with this is a new technique of expressing the predictions in terms of probabilities."
The new approach pools predictions from different models to form forecasts that account better for uncertainties and provide higher probabilities that people can act on. Specifically, the group is hoping that their new approach will help in risk assessment - deciding when it's worth taking action even when there are doubts about specific impacts and when they might occur.

The costs of guessing wrong could be high either way, but you can see how massive destruction, displacement and death would outweigh the costs of new protective infrastructure in many situations.

Flood defense news

I just learned from this Associated Press story (reported on the Forbes site) that much of Guyana's coast region is 6-feet below sea level. It's that fact that has prompted Guyana's government to ask Japan for help in building defenses against sea level rise and storm surge.

Agriculture Minister Robert Persaud said the government is meeting with a team of Japanese officials this week and plans to ask for $100 million in aid.

Persaud said Guyana wants to strengthen the network of sea walls, canals, floodgates and reservoirs that protect its coast, which in many places is 6 feet below sea level and could become more vulnerable if ocean levels rise because of global climate change.


In Australia, a new company has formed to address the threat of flooding. Flooding Solutions Advisory Group describes itself like this:

Our consulting activities include detailed reporting of risk assessment options for the most suitable flood protection solutions for each project, based on a wide range of systems developed by our group, or associated with our group. This service includes site specific planning of selected flood mitigation strategies that may include a particular system type and its installation.
One of its early products is called the DutchDam Emergency Flood Barrier.

Global flooding update

The story continues. As flood waters recede in Bangladesh and eastern and northern India, the country promises to learn from its lack of preparedness for what should have been predictable. Reuters reports:

Authorities also promised to learn lessons from the catastrophic flooding which killed more than 583 people in India and Bangladesh in the last three weeks and left hundreds of thousands homeless, exposed and vulnerable to deadly diseases.

However, similar pledges are made most years following the deadly floods which plague the region -- many people in Bihar, one of the worst-hit states this year, will remember suffering similar devastation in the floods of 2002, 2003 and 2004.
This lack of commitment and political memory is almost as predictable as the monsoons, and demonstrates one of the main concerns of Climate Frog.

Bihar's Disaster Management Department says it intends to rebuild housing of brick, and on higher ground than the destroyed housing. Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, where two-thirds of the country was submerged, there were over 50,000 cases of diarhea reported. Healthcare workers complained of a major shortage of boats to get around to marooned people. And engineers recommended building stronger levees, though it was pointed out that once breached, the same levees would prevent flood waters from draining back into the rivers.

Meanwhile the monsoon rains are now devastating west India and Pakistan. Forty inches of rain fell on the Indian state of Guijarat last week. Rains caused buildings to collapse in the Pakistani city of Karachi.
The Indian authorities, already at full stretch after thousands of square miles were inundated in the east, have had to shift resources to help the new flood victims. Helicopters have dropped food parcels in some remote areas, but people are desperate for drinking water as temperatures soar.
The aftermath of flooding in poor, tropical regions:
Many survivors of the floods fear rising debt and hunger as they contemplate the future without homes, crops or livestock. John Holmes, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, has blamed climate change for the severe rains and called for urgent action to help people living in vulnerable areas cope with extreme weather.

Some practical ideas for a change

It's a good time to prepare for hurricanes and here's your one-stop shopping place for information about how to do that.

Hurricane hazards come in many forms: storm surge, high winds, tornadoes, and flooding. This means it is important for your family to have a plan that includes all of these hazards. Look carefully at the safety actions associated with each type of hurricane hazard and prepare your family disaster plan accordingly. But remember this is only a guide. The first and most important thing anyone should do when facing a hurricane threat is to use common sense.
FEMA does prove itself useful if you visit their site BEFORE you get flooded. Here - in a collection of PDF files - is its Homeowner's Guide to Retrofitting: Six Ways to Protect Your House from Flooding
This guide is specifically for homeowners who want information on protecting their houses from flooding. Homeowners need clear information about the options available and straightforward guidance that will help make decisions. This guide gives both, in a form designed for readers who have little or no knowledge about flood protection methods or building construction techniques.

The Weekend Backlog

Take a couple days off from posting and stories pile up.

How do you deal with local ordinance "deniers"? A S.F. Chronicle writer rants about lawn-waterers during a growing water shortage: So Where's the Drought-rage?

It's like watching someone clean out their car and just toss all the garbage onto the street. Do you say anything? Is it worth it? Just watching this river forming in the gutter is its own form of water torture. Is it time to engage in complete and total DROUGHT-RAGE!?
We ain't seen nothin' yet. British meteorologists forecast that global warming will become more intense after 2009.
Global warming is forecast to set in with a vengeance after 2009, with at least half of the five following years expected to be hotter than 1998, the warmest year on record...
A major insurer describes the changing landscape of risk management. Lloyd's Chairman speaks:
Above all, what insurers want to see is a focus on contingency planning. Preparedness is key – yet you may be surprised to know that many businesses aren’t ready to face disaster when it strikes. In our recent research, almost 40 per cent of business leaders admitted that they do not have adequate disaster plans in place to respond to terrorist attacks2. Some think that contingency planning is too expensive, but in fact the most important steps for surviving a crisis often cost little. Being unprepared can be the most expensive strategy of all.
California Dreamin' - at least we've reached the point where the analysts can say "more analysis needed." This is part of the California Climate Change Portal.
In response to Executive Order S-3-05, the California Energy Commission and the California Environmental Protection Agency commissioned an assessment of potential climate change impacts to California entitled “the Scenarios Project”. This report summarizes the findings from individual research efforts and compares them with earlier studies. Findings include increases in temperature, changes to the hydrologic cycle, and more frequent and severe extreme weather events. More information and analysis is needed to understand the vulnerability of economic sectors, ecosystems, and human health.
Global Warming remedies will be expensive. As if we hadn't guessed. But this NY Times story provides examples, dollar signs and lots of zeros. Of course, if you compare it to the cost of our military adventure in Iraq, it ain't so much.
Global warming is by nature a big-enough problem to create the kind of necessity that could be mother, father and midwife to invention. And plenty of big ideas are out there to address it, some that may even lead to substantial enterprises much as our military needs have


Friday, August 10, 2007

Arctic melt-off beating forecasts

Maybe you're familiar with The Weather Underground. I remember it as the first weather information Web site I put into my bookmarks. Jeff Masters is its founder. He's an expert on hurricanes and air pollution. My favorite part of his bio: "...his favorite movie is Monty Python and the Holy Grail." He keeps a blog called Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog, which is both informative and educational, not to mention good humored. In today's article he provides a tropical update on the conditions that might lead to the formation of hurricanes.

He also describes the findings from the National Snow and Ice Data Center that indicated that the extent of sea ice around the North Pole is lower than it's ever been recorded for the end of July. Check out this graph:

Arctic sea ice extent for July, for the years 1979-2007. July 2007 had the lowest Arctic sea ice extent since satellite measurements began in 1979. July sea ice coverage has declined about 26% since 1979.
These two satellite photos from the University of Illinois show the dramatic difference over 8 years. Remember - less reflective ice cover = more warming. This shrinkage in ice is called an "anomaly" because it's beyond what forecasts had estimated would be there. Still another month to go in Arctic summer (where the sun actually reaches the area.)


Adaptation Pioneers - the Gardeners

The CNN article, Climate change challenging gardeners to plant smarter provides a not-so-scary primer about how people may need to change their habits and preferences to concede to the realities of global warming.

Don't look now, but the early signs of climate change have already landed with a thud in our backyards.

Gardeners across the country have to adapt, the sooner the better, said Todd Forrest, vice president for horticulture and living collections with the New York Botanical Garden.

"That means planting smarter and planting for the future," he said. "The first thing gardeners can do is understand they'll have to live with elevated temperatures, including higher nighttime temperatures. In winter, they'll have less snowfall. Those two changes will have a significant impact on what we can grow."

Growing seasons are changing. Animals are moving more northward and at higher elevations than before, growing ranges for plants are also moving north, and drought-resistant plants are the only option now in many parts of the Southwest. Weeds are growing like...weeds! New kinds of pests are probably invading your plants.

"Those of us living in the northern part of the United States, whether gardeners or farmers, have it easy compared to those south of us with plant pests," Wolfe said. "A lot of (pests) get killed off in winter. But as we get warmer winters, we're getting a higher incidence of plant pests."

Gardeners could adapt by increasing their use of pesticides. "But of course, this has a potential environmental and food safety cost, as well as economic cost," Wolfe said.

Since erratic precipitation patterns are expected to bring droughts followed by deluges, consider planting succulents to survive dry periods. And add rain gardens -- shallow depressions containing water-tolerant plants -- to absorb the flow from heavy downpours.

The article is aimed at U.S.-based gardeners, but the lessons apply to agriculture in general, all over the planet. For gardeners and farmers alike, it ain't like it used to be and it ain't done changing, either.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

Katrina Continued...

Just as we might be underestimating the impacts ahead from climate change, we seem to be under-measuring the after effects of recent extreme storms.

The Washington Post reports on a study's findings that "Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused far more dislocation to Louisiana's population than previously estimated, with tens of thousands more people being forced to relocate than previous population counts have suggested..."

The study by the Louisiana Recovery Authority found that previous population studies of the changes following this series of storms "did not capture the vast amount of churning that occurred not only as people left wrecked homes but also as they were forced to leave intact dwellings to find jobs elsewhere and as others moved in to abandoned homes..."

About 246,000 left the city, about 50,000 moved from one house in the city to another, and about 20,000 moved in from elsewhere.

Overall, in the 18 parishes studied, the storms forced 398,000 to move away and 151,000 to relocate within their parish.

The closure of New Orleans for two months after the flood led many employers to relocate; many have not returned.
The Post story also revealed that a survey of New Orleans area residents of FEMA trailer parks found many of them to be in pretty bad shape, which you'd expect if you saw the conditions in these places. Small, cramped, hot, crowded...unimaginable if you've never lived like that.
...for the poorest evacuees, domestic circumstances are now far worse: More are unemployed, many have been the victims of theft and domestic abuse, and about half are unclear about how long they might remain at government-sponsored trailer sites.

A map of early warning signs of global warming

Seven environmental and progressive groups collaborated on putting together a world map with icons denoting fingerprints and harbingers of global warming impacts. Here's how they identify them:

FINGERPRINTS: Direct manifestations of a widespread and long-term trend toward warmer global temperatures
  • Heat waves and periods of unusually warm weather
  • Ocean warming, sea-level rise and coastal flooding
  • Glaciers melting
  • Arctic and Antarctic warming
HARBINGERS: Events that foreshadow the types of impacts likely to become more frequent and widespread with continued warming.
  • Spreading disease
  • Earlier spring arrival
  • Plant and animal range shifts and population changes
  • Coral reef bleaching
  • Downpours, heavy snowfalls, and flooding
  • Droughts and fires

I clicked over California and on an icon with a leaping dear on it. I got this:
***
Global warming harbinger
Event Plant and animal range shifts and population changes
See Photo Below!
California
Butterfly range shift. Edith's Checkerspot Butterfly has been disappearing from the lower elevations and southern limits of its range.

Reference: Parmesan, C. 1996. Climate and species' range. Nature 382: 765-766.

Singing in the Rain

I love to play and listen to music so I'm going to follow the example of one of my favorite bloggers, John Amato over at Crooks and Liars, and include a regular musical post here in Climate Frog.

John calls his C&L's Late Night Music Club. I'll call these Singing in the Rain for now at least.

I've just been watching the DVD of The Who performing the last gig on their 2000 tour at Royal Albert Hall. Nobody rocked harder in the 60s when they came on the scene. They were all over 50 in this concert and I swear, nobody still rocked harder. Bassist John Entwistle died less than 2 years later. Drummer at this gig was Zack Starkey, son of Ringo Starr. He brought the thunder.

Here's a comparison of performances from 1967 and from 2000. First the young Who at Monterey Pop with a film montage of guitar annihilation:

Here's about 33 years later, a home video of The Real Me being performed on the same tour I watched on DVD. (No guitars were harmed this time, but Pete does the windmill):

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bush now bungling disaster planning

If you liked how the Federal Government handled Katrina, you'll love the new disaster management plan being formulated by the White House and Homeland Security. State disaster management leaders are fuming over the secrecy and refusal to incorporate their input into the new strategy for coordinating Federal, state and local resources when disasters strike, which, of course, is more likely today and in the future than it's ever been.

In the Washington Post story, we find that investigators have called for an overhaul of disaster planning in the U.S., and that the Administration has ignored that call.

"In my 19 years in emergency management, I have never experienced a more polarized environment between state and federal government," said Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma's emergency management chief and president of a national association of state emergency managers.
***
Federal officials, Ashwood said, appear to be trying to create a legalistic document to shield themselves from responsibility for future disasters and to shift blame to states. "It seems that the Katrina federal legacy is one of minimizing exposure for the next event and ensuring future focus is centered on state and local preparedness," he said.
At a time - in the hurricane season - when we should be concentrating on coordinated preparedness, we continue to suffer the obstinacy of a President and his cult of loyal followers. Please come soon, January 29, 2009.

What economists don't understand about climate change

There's a very interesting conversation happening on the Economists View blog about the projections some economists have made concerning the impact of global warming and what the economic conditions are likely to be at the end of this century.

The article, titled "Why Economists Don't Know All the Answers about Climate Change" cites this essay by Paul Klemperer on the Vox cite, which publishes analysis by European economists. Klemperer states the following (and much more, of course) and the comments on the Economists View blog go on from there:

Disagreement is usually more instructive than consensus, and economists’ current debate about climate change is no exception. It reveals three important questions that have gone largely unanswered in popular discussions. But though economists have exposed the questions, we need the scientists, the sociologists and the philosophers to answer them.

The root of the problems is that the costs of preventing climate change start now, while many of the benefits come in a hundred years or more. If growth continues at its recent historical rate, world GDP per capita will be at least five times higher in 100 years. So we should not feel too obliged to make sacrifices that make future generations even richer, any more than our grandparents should have given up their only television so that we can have yet one more set in the house. But it doesn’t mean that because most likely climate-change scenarios leave economic growth broadly unchanged, we can stop worrying: it simply means that the outcomes that really matter in cost-benefit calculations about climate change are those that are so disastrous that they wipe out the benefits of economic growth.

Of course (says my internal voice) much of the commentary begins by challenging the assumption that growth will continue "at its recent historical rate" or that economic growth will over the next 90 years will be "broadly unchanged." Yes, it's a question of sacrificing now to save lives and societies in the future, but no one can rest on the assurance that economic life will go on as usual in the midst of complex adaptation to changing climate.

As the blog author Bruce Wilder posts in his own Comments,
Economists could be -- and should be -- contributing to the framing of the climate change crisis in a critical way by tying together the various threads of the problems facing humanity. Climate change is not something happening in isolation -- it is tied to the crisis of "peak oil" and to overpopulation and to a variety of environmental catastrophes, species extinctions and the like.

India government ineptitude complicates recovery

In the wake of torrential rains and flooding that has displaced millions, India is demonstrating how unprepared it is to deal with such a large population under crisis conditions. As disease, hunger and homelessness afflict hordes of flood refugees, systems for delivering medicine, healthcare, food and shelter are proving not up to the task. This in a country accustomed to annual monsoons and flooding, with a population known for extensive poverty and vulnerability.

In an analytical article by Reuters reporter Simon Denyer (I'm assuming it's pronounced "den-yer" rather than "de-nye-r"), government ineptitude is taken to task.

More than 100,000 people are still marooned -- many perched on rooftops -- in eastern India's Bihar, a state that is a byword for poverty at the best of times. Anger is rising at what is seen as the lackadaisical response of the state government. Four air force helicopters were pressed into action in Bihar this week, not nearly enough to bring food and drinking water to all the victims, U.N. officials say.

To add insult to injury, officials have been accused of stealing or hoarding food, while a 17-year-old boy was killed when police opened fire on an angry crowd.

The United Nations says state governments, especially in Bihar, simply do not have the capacity to deal with a crisis of almost unprecedented proportions. The governments themselves admit to being overwhelmed and say they are doing their best.

But a lack of planning for the vagaries of the annual monsoon seems to have left parts of India cruelly exposed.

A Tornado Touches Down in Brooklyn???

If a severe thunderstorm can do this, what will a direct hit by a hurricane and/or rising sea level do? Doesn't take much imagination to figure that out.

Powerful thunderstorms swept through the New York metropolitan area this morning, snapping trees, damaging hundreds of cars and buildings, and throwing the morning commute into chaos. The severe weather was blamed for at least one death and a handful of injuries.

As a strong blast of rain pounded the city early this morning, nearly every subway station was flooded or shut down, forcing commuters out onto the streets and into taxis and buses, and bringing traffic in many areas to a standstill. The Long Island Rail Road, Metro North and New Jersey Transit all were affected, and the region’s three major airports — La Guardia, Kennedy and Newark — were reporting flight cancellations and long delays. [italics mine]
Some people even reported what looked like a tornado touching down in Brooklyn.
One commuter, Pete Chiaramonte, 41, who was on his way to work at a towing company in Brooklyn this morning, said he saw what he thought was the storm touching down at around 5.30 a.m. near the corner of 37th Street and 13th Avenue. “It was a funnel shape,” he said. “It looked kind of black and blue,” adding, “it was way up high and came right down on the roof of” a department store. “Pieces of the roof were all over the place. It was a big bang.”
A meteorologist from Penn State denied that a tornado had touched down.

***

Update! Yes, they say it WAS a tornado in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Extreme Weather Tabulation for Early 2007

The most informative and persuasive book I've yet read about climate change and the risks we face is Hell and High Water by Joe Romm. Joe blogs at Climate Progress, one of my favorite feeds and sources for factual information about the effects of human-produced carbon emissions on our environment. So, read the book and bookmark Joe's blog.

I'm pointing to his latest article here because it does a great job of presenting the essentials of a just-released report by the World Meteorological Organization that confirms what the news stream has implied - records for different kinds of extreme weather were broken all over the place in the first four months of this year. Other news reports since April have noted more examples of unprecedented rain, flooding, drought and major storms landing in new locations.

What this should say to people who understand risk aversion is that the models for human-influenced global warming are proving to be valid, that the impacts can no longer be regarded as might happen or even gonna happen. They are happening and where they will happen next is the most important uncertainty. A population roughly the size of California's (36 million) has been rendered homeless or displaced by flooding over the past 3 months.

The task is huge and tricky, but it's time for more public consideration of contingency planning.
* * *
This story has made it to the top of CNN's newsfeed. Good.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Report from the Redwoods

We spent 3 nights in Humboldt Redwoods State Park in northern California. Here's a short (1 minute) video clip taken of a grove between the road and the south fork of the Eel River. Though a puny camera has a hard time depicting the scale of the mighty vegetables in this grove, it's typical of most of the 52,000 acres of the park, with some humongous trees and many youngsters, under 1,000 years old. Redwoods gain most of their mature height by the age of 100, then beginning increasing their girth.


The Save the Redwoods League was formed in 1918 to preserve this stand of trees as so many were being logged. Many groups purchased groves along this valley, with the state providing $6 million in matching funds.

This environment receives an average of over 65 inches of precipitation per year. Temperatures vary between summer highs of around 90 to winter lows of around 40. Since many of these trees are over 1300 years old, we know that the climate has remained pretty steady for that long. Redwoods don't do well in extreme heat or drought. They tolerate regular flooding, as the Eel very often overflows and submerges the bases and root systems of many of the trees along its bank. But since redwoods suck up 150+ gallons of water each day, a little extra water is not a problem.

The redwoods are the canary in the coal mine for the continuation of our Californian Mediterranean climate.

Acting Locally - My home turf

As I've posted before, I live close by the San Francisco Bay, about 30 feet in elevation above where a small creek enters an estuary of Richardson Bay. A good part of Mill Valley is flat, barely above sea level, as are many other residential and business neighborhoods in Marin County, and some sections of the one main traffic artery that runs north-south through the county - Route 101, "the redwood highway."

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission has done some studies of the impact of sea level rise and reported early this year on its findings. Relevant to where I live, it tells us (according to the Independent Journal, the county newspaper):

Sometime over the next century huge shoreline swaths of Marin, including Hamilton Field, Highway 37 and the Tamalpais Valley could be under water if global warming causes the bay to rise by a meter, according to the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Additionally, wild and extreme swings in the climate brought on by warming could have an impact on Marin's water supply.

There's an illustrative map of my immediate environs (I live in the upper left corner) and where the new water would spread with a one-meter rise in sea level. I know the intersection below my house would be under water at high tide, blocking one of two main thoroughfares into Mill Valley.

The county is already warning that our once-secure local water supply (unlike most of the state, we have never needed to pipe in water from a distance) is now proving inadequate to supply the growing population of mostly high-priced homes and landscaping. So we face the expense and experimental nature of a desalination plant on the Bay shore.

Over the course of the 25 years I've lived here, I've watched weather maps from the rest of the nation and confirmed for myself that our weather is among the most stable and mild. When that changes, we will surely notice.

This report from the U.S. Geological Survey describes the impact of an El Niño-generated rise in sea level on the S.F. Bay Area in the winter of 1998.

Throughout the first week of February 1998, high winds and heavy rains combined with abnormally high tides to wreak havoc in the San Francisco Bay region. The Pacific Ocean surged over parking lots and the coastal highway at San Francisco's Ocean Beach, and whitecaps up to 6 feet high splashed over the city's waterfront Embarcadero for the first time in recent memory. Elsewhere, U.S. Highway 101 north of the Golden Gate Bridge was flooded by as much as 4 feet of water from San Francisco Bay, and other low-lying areas around the bay were also swamped, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes.
So it's not like we haven't been warned by experience. To our credit, Mill Valley has a helpful Web site about disaster preparedness. Though it doesn't address sea level rise, it does provide good instruction for preparing for wildfires, floods, landslides, storms and earthquakes.

New Orleans: "Call in the Dutch.

Having visited New Orleans and toured the landfall path of Katrina, I'm glad to see Time Magazine putting its recovery back on the magazine cover. Plenty of blame to go around, but in terms of what we should be learning about preparedness for major storms and sea level rise, Harry Shearer put it best:

The Dutch have done it right — a state-of-the art system engineered to a 1-in-10,000-year factor of safety. We've been promised 1-in-100-years, by 2011. As the Army Corps' own reports have proven, dividing responsibility, and dividing the costs, have just resulted in buck-passing, inertia, and a 40-year-long project that failed when faced with a storm that wasn't even The Big One. If we can't do it right, let's call in the Dutch.

China's internal conflict over green GDP

China will soon overtake the U.S. as the planet's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. It's a country where hundreds of millions still lack access to clean drinking water. And it's a country on the verge of hosting its first Olympic games where TV watchers around the world may see some of the smoggiest air imaginable. In order to clean up its environment and its image, the government imposed new "green GDP" measurements for its provinces to report that included estimates of damage that industrial growth is doing to the environment.

Well, it seems that there's now some pullback on that effort as advocates of growth have managed to remove the environmental aspect from required reporting.

The swift demise of China's green GDP figures highlights a growing policy conflict between advocates of environmental protection and officials long used to pursuing economic growth at all costs.

"Green tightening" is the latest buzz phrase in China. Hardly a day goes by without the administration tweaking taxes or promulgating orders to crack down on industries that guzzle energy or belch pollution.

But official enthusiasm has its bounds. Last month, statistics chief Xie Fuzhan said China was indefinitely halting, after just one year, publication of its estimates of the damage that China's double-digit GDP growth is doing to the environment.
The Reuters story does not mention the current extreme weather events that have brought flooding, drought, killer lightning and desertification to the country.

As the flood waters recede

In India and Bangladesh, the flooding displaced millions of people and killed hundreds.

More than 1,000 people have been killed or injured by rising waters, but aid agencies say the figure is expected to rise sharply.

U.N. children's body UNICEF said it had lost track of how many people had been affected by the floods across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

So far about 20 million people are known to have fled their homes or trapped in villages at risk from landslides, snakebites and disease.

"Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes, their possessions, livestock and fields and will have to begin their lives from scratch when flood waters recede," UNICEF said.

The devastation comes on the heels of severe flooding in southern Pakistan, caused when Cyclone Yemyin struck the country's provinces of Balochistan and Sindh in late June.

Villagers are desperate for food, healthcare, medical supplies. Some are clashing with police.

Hospitals in eastern India were packed on Saturday with people suffering from waterborne diseases, and marooned villagers clashed with police as some of the worst floods in living memory ravaged South Asia.

More than 230 people have died over the past 11 days after torrential monsoon rains lashed the region, including much of Bangladesh, causing rivers to burst their banks. About 10 million people are homeless or cut off in their villages, with little or no access to food and health care. Health workers and aid groups in Assam in northeast India were working around the clock to treat and feed many of the 3 million people displaced or surrounded by flood waters in the state with the limited medicines and supplies available. Elsewhere, villagers were getting desperate and hungry.
Meanwhile in England, insurance companies have announced that premiums for next year will rise by 10 percent.

Leading catastrophe-exposure modelling firm Risk Management Solutions has estimated the total cost to the insurance industry of this summer's flooding at 3.3 billion pounds.

Aviva, which owns Norwich Union, said on Thursday that the June and July floods -- brought about by the wettest summer since records began -- would cost it 340 million pounds and affect its general insurance results.

The firm said it expected a bill of 165 million pounds from the July floods, which badly hit central and western parts of England, on top of expected claims of 175 million pounds from the June floods.

It will take some time to evaluate which permanent changes are made by the countries affected by this summer's flooding. Southern Asia is accustomed to the annual monsoons, but this year's has been extreme and possibly an example of how monsoons of the future will behave.



Wednesday, August 1, 2007

To the Redwoods


Grateful to still have 'em, Nance and I will be spending the next four days in the Humboldt Redwoods, 4 hours north of here. No new posts til Monday.

Brazil Acknowledging Impact

A New York Times story describes how scientists and political leaders in Brazil are having their "AHA!" moment regarding the impact of climate change on their nation.

The factors behind the re-evaluation range from a drought here in the Amazon rain forest, the world’s largest, and the impact that it could have on agriculture if it recurs, to new phenomena like a hurricane in the south of Brazil. As a result, environmental advocates, scientists and some politicians say, Brazilian policy makers and the public they serve are increasingly seeing climate change not as a distant problem, but as one that could affect them too.
There has long been pressure on Brazil to better manage the Amazon Basin - the largest CO2 sink and oxygen producing region in the world. Until now, Brazil has stood fast in its independent approach to dealing with the destruction of the forest in favor of agricultural and timber interests that fed into its growing economy. Now, it's beginning to reconsider some of the issues that have caused international friction in the past.

As rainfall patterns change, Brazil now realizes that its recent agricultural prosperity may be at risk. Dependable water flow is also essential to its plans for damming tributaries of the Amazon to produce electricity. As with may countries (see U.S., India and China, for example) Brazil stands to cook the very goose that has been laying its golden eggs.