Tag Archives: flooding

Fire and Floods

So far, this is the worst year ever for fires in the western states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The climate type for California lends its self to annual fires but global warming is making it worse because it is hotter and this time of year hotter is drier.

At the same time this is the worst season for hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and for the same reason – warmer air means warmer water means more energy to fuel storms. So far this year is bearing out NOAA’s prediction of an extremely active season.

Over four million acres have burned so far this year in the aforementioned states. Scores have died and more missing. Three million acres are on fire now and toxic smoke blankets thousands of square miles.

The result of global warming amplified weather damage here in the United States is annually hundreds of lives and billions of dollars of crop loss and property damage, far negating any minor improvements in a longer growing season and amplified CO2 for plant fertilization. Without serious effort, these costs will become insurmountable.

Of course, the real problem is the name – Global warming. For example, because of an extended heatwave in the northern climes, the ice north pole is melting faster than ever and the nearby tundra is thawing rapidly. At one point it was thought that a warmer tundra would promote moss growth which would form peat bogs. This could moderate the rate of climate change by removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus slowing atmospheric heat accumulation.

Ah. but life is not so simple. In parts of Siberia, the thawed, warmed, tundra is now burning. Fires in the Arctic are now the largest ever in recorded history. The Siberian taiga, what we call the boreal forests in the western hemisphere are burning and north of them the actual peat of the tundra. Underlying the tundra is permafrost of normally frozen organic-rich soil. As it thaws from the fires above it releases methane which may or may not catch fire as it is released. Regardless, methane itself is a greenhouse gas.

The release of the methane and carbon dioxide from the burning peat above the thawing permafrost will act in a vicious cycle known as positive feedback – as more greenhouse gasses are released, more heat is produced which causes the release of even more greenhouse gasses. All this of course increases the rate of climate change.

Global tropical storms, especially in the central and western pacific have had a somewhat average season with the exception of Cyclone Amphan which hit the Bay of Bengal, killing over a hundred and causing the greatest amount of damage, in excess of one hundred billion US dollars worth of damage in Bangladesh.

Obviously most eyes have been on the Covid-19 pandemic but the relentless planetary degradation due to global warming is marching on and cannot or should not be ignored. Heating of land magnifies the number of deadly heat waves and fires just like heating of water can produce more deadly storms.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Water Management

Exoplanets, or extrasolar planets, are simply planets that circle a star other than our own. First detected in the late 1980s, there are now thousands of known exoplanets. Although there is no current interest as a place to flee the ravages of our planet, the exoplanets are none the less of scientific interest.

The biggest problem as an escape route is the fact of distance, the nearest is over four light-years away. A light year is the distance light travels in one year or about six trillion miles. Despite being quite distant, the exoplanets are of interest as possible sources of other life in the universe. To accommodate life as we know it requires one universal – liquid water.

Water has unique chemical properties as a solvent that no other substance really can compare. Chemistry and thermodynamics, anywhere in the universe, combine in a way that makes life inconceivable without it.

With an abundance of water on this planet, one might think it is not an issue but increasingly it is. Specifically the availability of manageable water. Global warming and the climate change that follows therefrom is making the management of water difficult.

Sea levels are rising and rising faster than previously predicted. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has suggested that the sea level rise may be as much as six feet by the end of the century, more than twice the prediction of just a few years ago. And lest you think the end of the century is a long way off, it is within the lifetime of someone who could be reading this column today.

Whole cities will either have to be abandoned or pay incredible costs for infrastructure to hold the seas back. Forty percent of the world’s population is coastal, that is live within fifty miles of a seacoast.

Meanwhile farther inland, managing water is being made more difficult. Billions of people around the world depend on meltwater from the mountain snowpack. The regions which include the western United States, Alpine Europe, Central Asia and downstream of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau contain nearly half the human population of the planet. Global warming is threatening the timely delivery of freshwater. More cold season runoff can overwhelm reservoir storage of water, making less water available later in the growing season.

We’ve recently had a lesson on water management with the historic flooding of the Arkansas River valley. Serious to catastrophic failure of levees is responsible for disaster declarations in a sixth of Arkansas Counties. Levees and other flood control structures will have to be not just replaced but radically upgraded to accommodate changing rainfall patterns.

At every turn, climatic instabilities force greater expenditures on infrastructure. This is the cost of climate inaction. The sooner we act to reduce the rate of global warming, the less we have to spend on mitigation. We have economically practical technologies to stop driving global warming. Wind and solar electric energy coupled with battery storage can power the world. We must wholeheartedly invest in the future, now. Or do we abandon our children to our unaddressed climate disasters?

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Climate Change in the Courts

Remember school house rock and “How a bill becomes a law?” The Saturday morning programming focused on wide-ranging subjects including civics. The video addressed legislation but there is another mechanism to “make law” or at least influence government policy. Individuals and cities or states can seek redress in the courts to force actions of government agencies when they think the agencies are acting in violation of existing laws or constitutional mandates.

The suggestion that human activities, most notably burning fossil fuels, can influence global climate has been around since early in the Nineteenth century. The connection has been strengthened ever since. A landmark decision of the supreme court occurred during George W Bush’s second term in 2007. Several states and cities, led by Massachusetts successfully sued the Environmental Protection Agency to force regulation of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gasses as pollutants.

The case, Massachusetts v EPA turned on the definition of a pollutant. The court ruled that greenhouse gasses are pollutants and therefore should be regulated to protect the environment. This allowed the Obama administration to ramp up efficiency standards for cars and light trucks and to produce the clean power plan which clamped down on carbon emissions from power plants.

President Trump has acted to reverse both of these Obama era regulations. His actions are being contested in the courts, based to a considerable degree on the previous supreme court interpretation of greenhouse gasses as pollutants and the need for their regulation.

Another interesting case is before the court now. This case, Juliana v U.S. is being brought by a group of children ages 11 to 22 against a number of agencies including the EPA, Energy, Interior, and Defense departments. This is literally a children’s crusade for the right of future generations to live in a stable climate.

Apparently, the government will not challenge the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and the climate changing. Nor will they deny human influence on the changes. Rather the government will argue that the claimed harms of weather extremes cannot be reasonably connected to climate change.

The connection between any individual storm event and climate change is a difficult claim to make but let me use a favorite sports analogy. Mark McGuire, a slugger for Oakland and St. Louis, hit home runs both before and after employing anabolic steroids to enhance his performance. Can any one home run be linked to “juicing?” No, of course not. However, both he and Sammy Sosa both broke the previous home run record while juicing.

We are now breaking records for climate disruption while enhancing climate change. The job of the litigation will be to make that connection. If so the court should rule with the children to protect their future.

The children are not asking for damages per se, but rather are asking the judge to order the affected agencies to revamp regulations with the goal of reducing emissions of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gasses to much lower levels than exist today.

Climate Change, Weather Change

Climatology is meteorology writ large. They are really just different branches of atmospheric science. If you want to know whether it is likely to rain tomorrow talk to the weatherman who is a meteorologist. But if you want to know about what the weather will be like in a number of years, you should consult a climatologist.

As I write the water has yet to drain out of the east Texas area where Hurricane Harvey caused the greatest rainfall event ever in United states (over 50 inches of rain.) Meanwhile, there are three hurricanes off our shores. These are weather phenomena which are impacted by climate. Climate change of necessity causes weather changes.

Hurricane Irma is the most intense Atlantic hurricane ever. It appears to be on a collision course with Miami Beach. If it veers slightly to the west the Carolinas are threatened. Right behind Irma is Jose streaming in our direction from the east. Hurricane Katia is stewing off the coast of Mexico with little indication of movement.

Meanwhile on our west coast earlier this year we saw record flooding and now a severe heat wave and wildfires from Los Angeles to Vancouver.

Is this normal? Or is the the new normal if climate change is factored in? There is uncertainty in blaming any one event on global warming. Realistically that can’t be done. But let me analogize if I may. Mark McGuire was a major league baseball player. Much of his success at home plate he later admitted was due to his use of performance enhancing steroids. Just one example, from 1996 to 1999 he led the league in home runs.

So here is the question: Can we attribute any one of those home runs to steroid use? Not really. What we can say is the muscle mass developed due to his steroid use greatly contributed to his success.

Adding Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is like providing steroids to an athlete. The added CO2 causes heat to be trapped in the atmosphere which which causes warming, but also creates a more dynamic atmosphere. More droughts occur because it’s hotter. More intense rainfall events occur because a warmer atmosphere holds more water.

Hurricanes are driven to large degree by the warmer ocean water, clearly demonstrated by the summer/fall hurricane season when the Atlantic is naturally warmer. Make it warmer still from global warming and you get Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever.

The concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is now higher (407 ppm) than it has been for at least 2 to 4 million years. Other heat trapping gasses such as Methane and Nitrous Oxide are also at all time highs. Yet there are those, in fact whole political parties, which deny anthropogenic climate change even in the face of rising seas, melting ice, and intensifying storms.

The United States contributes 20% of the heat trapping gasses to the atmosphere, but only constitute about 5% worlds population. Every scientific body on the planet including all major science organizations in the United states agrees that climate change is a threat and needs to be addressed. Our government is alone among the nations of the world in our refusal to address global warming. ALONE.


Stormy Weather in the Southern Plains

The recent wave of severe storms, tornadoes and flooding plaguing the southern plains, essentially Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas have cost a over 30 lives, countless injuries and billions in property damage. And it isn’t over yet. Some of the rain and flooding from these storms are breaking all records. One Texas official described the recent rain as “of biblical proportions”

One of the effects of global warming is more severe storms of all kinds – tornadoes, floods, heat waves, hurricanes, etc. Over the following decades we will see these increase in both frequency and severity. As we continue to pump ever increasing amounts of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, more heat will be trapped, and more heat in the atmosphere is a principle cause of severe weather.

There are a couple of factors involved. A warmer atmosphere means warmer seas, which means more evaporation. Additionally the amount of water vapor that the atmosphere will hold is a function of temperature, the warmer it is, the greater the greater the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. Conditions such as wild fires will also increase, due to “dry thunderstorms.” Lightning and high winds accompany these events where the rain evaporates before it gets to the ground.

And it’s not just the current storms in the southern plains nor the blizzards on the east coast last winter, it is global. Although the Atlantic was rather calm during the traditional hurricane season last year, there was an unprecedented number of severe storms in the eastern Pacific and Indian Ocean nations. Again billions upon billions of dollars of damages and hundreds of lives lost.

An important point to make is that all this accelerated activity correlates with a warmer atmosphere. Can any one storm (or it’s intensity) be blamed on global warming? No, of course not. No more than any one home run by Mark McGwire could be attributed to steroid use.

The type of societal damage from severe storms varies. Flooding causes the most economic injury. Damage to infrastructure, homes and vehicles dominate the costs. Most human deaths in the US are caused by heat waves. Tornadoes cause the most human injuries.

So what can be done? In the long term the solution is obvious – quit burning stuff for energy production. Burning coal, oil and natural gas returns Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere over a few decades that took many millions years to remove from the atmosphere. The problem is one of recognizing the true costs of energy sources. What we see on our electric bill or at the gas pump only includes the direct costs. The costs of externalities due to severe weather is not included.

How about a weather tax assessed to energy sources driven by fossil fuels? The money from this assessment could be used to rebuild and strengthen infrastructure, subsidize construction of more storm resistant residences, improve drainage, and expand reservoir capacity in drought prone areas just to mention a few. Basically we should use the funds to provide for the general welfare as is called for in our constitution.



Whistling Past the Graveyard

“Whistling past the graveyard” is an old expression used to exemplify willful ignorance; more specifically, trying to remain cheerful in the presence of a known threat. It’s use here applies to those in denial about the risks of global warming and the concomitant changes in climate.

a natural whistler

a natural whistler

Denial ranges from simple willful ignorance up to and including malicious lying about both the current reality and future risks. The simplest denial is to not participate in society by not being informed about important issues which affect us all. Another level is those who try their best to find a justification for their denial. Websites abound for those folks. There are numerous sites designed to appear to be promoting free enterprise or unfettered capitalism but are actually front groups.

Those promoting active denial are essentially all guided by the fossil fuel industry. The Heartland Institute has created a school curriculum that employs numerous half truths to promote the notion that there is a real scientific controversy.

Frank Luntz has advised members of the Republican Party that denial should take the form of
pointing repeatedly to a lack of scientific certainty. In reality there is very little uncertainty and essentially no controversy. Denial ranges from sublime to the ridiculous, for example witness Senator Inhofe’s snowball show on the senate floor recently. He brought a snowball into the senate chamber to make that point that it was cold outside, hence global warming is a hoax.

The absolutely worst form of denial is that which comes through taxpayer funding. The Miami Herald recently reported that the Florida State “ DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] officials have been ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports. This is according to “former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.”

Of course Governor Scott of Florida denies any such order. He was noncommittal when asked if the DEP plans for or even believes in global warming. He also refused to say whether he personally believes global warming is a problem.

In 2012, the Republican dominated legislature in North Carolina passed a law to the effect that state scientists could only use data from the year 1900 forward to project sea level rise and then only extrapolate out linearly. The scientists have been denied the use of the best data and computer modeling.

At the national level, the republican led House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to a Defense Department funding bill: None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to implement the U.S. Global Change Research Program National Climate Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, the United Nation’s Agenda 21 sustainable development plan, or the May 2013 Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order…

“Facts don’t cease to exist because they are ignored” Aldous Huxley