Storms Keep Getting Stronger With More and More Water
© 2017 by Linda Moulton Howe
“It's a less benign climate. It's a climate now where we'll have more extremes and
everywhere will get caught up sooner or later in these extreme events.”
- Kevin Trenberth, Ph.D. Atmospheric Physicist,
Nat'l. Center for Atmospheric Research
“500-Year-Flood” on August 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas, as Hurricane
Harvey released devastating rainfall, the third “500-year-flood” in three years.
Image © 2017 by Richard Carson/Reuters.
Hurricane Harvey, Category 4
August 24 - 28, 2017
September 29, 2017 Boulder, Colorado - The first major hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was Harvey. It hit southern Texas and Houston on August 25th as a Category 4 monster.
Over a 4-day-period from August 24th to 28th, Harvey moved over Gulf of Mexico waters that were a warm 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The warm water and air allowed the big cyclone to hold lots of water. And Hurricane Harvey broke the total rainfall record for the continental United States at around 51 inches in one downpour and rain accumulations were up to nearly 65 inches!
Harvey goes down in the record books as the wettest tropical cyclone hurricane on record in the United States. Trillions of gallons of water poured down on Houston's old reservoirs built in the 1940s that could not hold back the onslaught and floods inundated hundreds of thousands of homes, killed at least 83 people, displaced more than 30,000 people, and provoked more than 17,000 rescues. Price tag: Over $70 billion.
Hurricane Irma, Category 5
September 5 - 16, 2017
Then after Harvey came even more intense Hurricane Irma. By September 5th, Irma became a Category 5 hurricane and the next day on September 6, Irma reached its peak intensity with 185 mph (295 km/h) winds and very low barometric pressure of 914 millibars [ 914 hPa; 27.0 inHg ], making Irma the second most intense tropical cyclone worldwide and strongest wind speed worldwide so far in 2017. Irma was the most intense Atlantic hurricane to strike the United States since Katrina in 2005. Irma caused widespread and catastrophic damage, particularly in the Leeward Islands of Barbuda and St. Martinique plus on to the Florida Keys. 102 people died.
Hurricane Maria, Category 5 and 4
September 18 -
September 20, 2017
Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island and unincorporated U. S. territory of 3.4 million people was
devastated on September 20, 2017, by Category 4 Hurricane Maria
Then came Hurricane Maria. On Monday night, September 18, 2017, it made landfall in Dominica — the first Category 5 hurricane to slam that island nation. The on September 20th, Maria pounded into Puerto Rico with Cat 4 sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and one of the lowest barometric pressures, making Maria the strongest hurricane to hit that American island since 1928 and the most intense to make landfall anywhere in the United States since Hurricane Camille in 1969. Nearly 100% of Puerto Rico's power grid was wiped out, plunging the island nation of 3.4 million people into darkness on the ground and from satellite (below). Authorities say that Puerto Rico could be without power for months.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released powerful images showing what
Puerto Rico looked like from space before and after Hurricane Maria devastated the region.
As of September 28, 2017, Hurricane Maria had caused at least 59 deaths in Puerto Rico, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and the U. S. Virgin Islands devastated by flooding, uprooted trees and roofs flying off houses and buildings.
Stronger, Wetter Storms
According to the United Nations refugee agency, increasing numbers of extreme weather events are now hurting some 21 million people each year, causing them to move to whatever lands they are allowed to enter. As the climate keeps warming and the atmosphere keeps taking up more water, storms are expected to be stronger and wetter.
A Union of Concerned Scientists study published in the July 12, 2017, peer-reviewed journal Elementa was entitled: “Effective inundation of continental United States communities with 21st century sea level rise.” The summary begins:
“Recurrent, tidally driven coastal flooding is one of the most visible signs of sea level rise. Recent studies have shown that such flooding will become more frequent and extensive as sea level continues to rise, potentially altering the landscape and livability of coastal communities decades before sea level rise causes coastal land to be permanently inundated. In this study, we identify US communities that will face effective inundation—defined as having 10% or more of livable land area flooded at least 26 times per year.”
UCS: Today, high tide flooding is shifting from a nuisance to a costly, disruptive problem
in locations such as Miami Beach, pictured here in 2015. The UCS study shows that Miami
will keep on flooding now up to 26 times a year by the end of the 21st Century.
In addition to the chronic flooding of many Miami coastal streets now during high tides, the Union of Concerned Scientists studied other American coastal cities that now have sea level rise problems, including Charleston, South Carolina. According to NOAA records, that city saw a record 50 high-tide floods in 2016, a sharp rise from the prior record of 38 high-tide floods in 2015. Only 28 years from now in 2045, Charleston faces sea level rise up to two and a half feet for at least half the year affecting at least 15% of the city. A few decades ago, Charleston had only a couple of high tide floods a year.
Earth Now Expected to Warm At Least
2 Degrees Celsius/ 3.6 Degrees Fahrenheit by 2100
A decade ago, climatologists warned that humans had to keep global warming increase in the 21st Century down to no more than 2 degrees Celsius / 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But Scientific American reported on August 1, “There's only a 5% chance of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, according to a forecast drawn from a statistical analysis of 150 countries' population and economic growth. NASA says that two degrees of warming marks the likely threshold for widespread ecological problems, including coral reef collapse, markedly higher sea-level rise and crop failures.”
Scientists are concerned that if the Earth's average global temperature heats up 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the rest of this century, the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica will become unstable and melt at an unstoppable rate. If the West Antarctic ice sheet melted entirely into the ocean, it would raise sea levels by more than 10 feet. If Greenland's ice sheet melted, that would add another 23 feet of sea level rise for a total of 33 feet above current levels. No one knows exactly how long it would take to reach that level, but recent projections of sea level rise by the year 2100 is now at least 4 feet. It's estimated that more than 12 million people live on United States coastal land that will go underwater if the oceans rise 10 feet. One analysis by NASA and the University of California at Irvine show that western Antarctica has been losing water equivalent to the weight of Mt. Everest every two years for the past 24 years.
One of the most respected climate scientists in the world now expects global warming to increase more rapidly and to reach 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 to 2060, decades before the end of this century. He is Kevin Trenberth, Ph.D., Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research also known as NCAR in Boulder, Colorado. He shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as lead author of the 1995-2007 Scientific Assessment of Climate Change for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is the 2017 winner of the American Geophysical Union Roger Revelle medal “for outstanding contributions to the understanding of the atmosphere and its interactions with other parts of the climate system.”
Kevin Trenberth, Ph.D., Distinguished
Senior Scientist, Climate Analysis Section,
National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR),
Boulder, Colorado. He shared the 2007 Nobel Peace
Prize as lead author of the 1995-2007 Scientific
Assessment of Climate Change for the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is
the 2017 winner of the American Geophysical Union
Roger Revelle medal “for outstanding contributions
to the understanding of the atmosphere and its
interactions with other pars of the climate system.”
Floodwaters in Malda, West Bengal, India on August 29, 2017, the same time that Hurricane Harvey
was dumped unprecedented amounts of rain on Houston, Texas, on the other side of the world. The
death toll from floods sweeping South Asia climbed above 1,000. Image © 2017 AFP/Getty Images.
LMH: Dr. Trenberth, you and other climate scientists have been quoted recently in various media describing the danger facing us in a warming climate in which the atmosphere can hold more moisture. An example was on August 29th, 2017, at the same time that we were having Hurricane Harvey's raging waters flood Houston, Texas, across the globe in Mumbai, India, during their summer monsoons, as much rain fell in 12 hours as would normally have fallen in 11 days. So on two sides of the Northern Hemisphere, unprecedented volumes of water were coming from storms at the same time.
That's correct. Yes. And of course, it wasn't just Mumbai in India, but there were many other expanses of India and also Nepal and Bangladesh that suffered from very heavy rainfalls, tremendous flooding, over a thousand people dead. We only have to go back to last year to the floods in Houston last year in April, but there were two other major events that are worth paying attention to. One of them was a storm that didn't even get named. It was a tropical storm, but it came in and dumped huge amounts of rain, over 30 inches in places in Louisiana in a relatively flat region, and there was a tremendous amount of flooding there. And it was called a thousand-year storm, and then again along the coast in association with Hurricane Matthew in October of last year there were a number of areas in the Carolinas that had what was again qualified as a thousand-year storm rainfalls. And so what used to be a thousand-year event, instead is often, nowadays, probably more like a 70 or 100-year event.
Right. So take the August 2017 unprecedented floods from Houston to Mumbai and other regions and describe your own personal perspective of the worst-case coming for the rest of this century in terms of weather, global warming, what is going to happen and the impact on animals and people.
Oh, my! You know, the way we're going — and certainly President Trump and the current administration is not helping in this regard — the way we're going right now, we will double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from pre-industrial levels by about the 2050s. So, pre-industrial level was 280 parts per million by volume. We're somewhere around 405 now. So we're over 40% higher than pre-industrial levels. And we could be at 560 or thereabouts by the 2050, the way we're going. So this is tough for society to handle. This is tough for ecosystems to handle.
“There is now little to no chance of maintaining the rise in global mean surface
temperature at below 2°C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary.
Moreover, the impacts associated with 2°C have been revised upwards sufficiently
so that 2°C now more appropriately represents the threshold between dangerous
and extremely dangerous climate change.” Excerpt from “Beyond 'Dangerous'
Climate Change: Emission Scenarios for A New World” by the Royal
Society Publishing.org, Nov. 29, 2010.
In fact, the overall climate change somewhere around the mid-21st Century is when the two degrees Celsius global warming number is reached about that time when many ecosystems no longer will be viable where they currently exist. So that means farmers can no longer plant the crops they currently grow. It doesn't mean they can't grow other crops, but they probably can't still plant the same crops anymore.
Trees and forests — the trees which currently grow in a forest probably can't grow in the same forest anymore. And it doesn't mean that other trees can't grow there, but you have to have a different species, and the trees have to evolve, and of course, one major way in which these evolve is through the increased wildfires that occur that wipe out a species, and then that species can't grow back and some other species has to come along somehow, and maybe humans can help it by planting small trees or something like that. But we have to guess as to what kind of trees will actually grow in that spot in the future.
And so it's these kind of changes which are likely to be very disruptive. It doesn't mean we can't live in that climate. The climate has certainly changed in the past. But if the climate changes happen a lot more slowly, we can see them coming, we can sort of adapt to them, we can gradually change our procedures. The farmers can maybe change the way in which they do irrigation and change the kind of seed in some fashion.
But it isn't being slowed down.
Not at the moment, no.
So, what are the worst-case consequences for the rest of this century if Houston and Mumbai are like a glimpse of what we're going to see more and more of?
Yes, so those kind of things become much more common in the second half of this 21st century. But the other thing is rising sea levels along the coast. So sea level's going up at a rate of about 15 inches per century at the current time. And the best predictions are that that is likely to double, so we could easily be at 30 inches, and there are some people who are quite worried that it could even be a lot more than that. It could be three times that amount by the turn of the century. Many coastal regions will be inundated.
We're already seeing this in places like Miami where the fact that the sea level is running a bit higher means that you just have to have a reasonable tide, and the next thing you know you've got flooding all through big chunks of the city and many coastal regions will not be viable anymore. This is one of the issues that will emerge in regard to Houston. Should people just build back where they are? Or should some tracts of land actually be abandoned and people should really go somewhere else? Probably not enough of that will happen, and that makes us vulnerable again in the future.
Political systems are trying to squelch the facts about global warming and consequences while water is surging and coming into streets already in southern Florida.
Yes. This is clearly the case, and it's clearly true with a number of the secretaries, especially the head of the EPA, Pruitt, and the president himself are in denial of climate change.
If sea level rise did change over the rest of this 21st century from 15 inches to 30 inches, wouldn't that put southern Florida underwater completely?
Yeah. And of course, what happens is it's not just the sea level rise by itself. It's sea level rise combined with a high tide combined with a storm surge. And so when those three things come together, you may be all right, the water might only be up to your toes, but the next thing you know, it's up to your knees. And it may retreat again, but it's going to come back, and so some places no longer become viable. It's the variability associated especially with storm surges and high tides that compound the problem with regard to sea level rise.
So aren't we facing — as hard as it is — the reality that places like Florida and Louisiana and the Gulf states especially should have an entire border where no land development is allowed? That there could be a designation at a federal and state collaboration level that from now on going forward just like we have national parks set aside, we would have ocean beach for as far in as we think that we will be able to get through the 21st century. This would be an acknowledgment that there will be perpetual and persistent flooding of the border of the Gulf in the United States.
That makes a tremendous amount of sense to me. This relates to the role of government, and the question is who is in charge, who actually mandates these kind of things? I've seen this from a somewhat different standpoint. I'm from Christchurch in New Zealand, and in Christchurch in 2012, I think it was, we had a major earthquake, and so there was a tremendous amount of liquefaction. A lot of houses had a tremendous amount of trouble.
In terms of the implications of 2017 going forward and worst-case scenarios that are realistic, are we going to see over the next decades more forest fires, desertification, floods, stronger storms increasingly affecting the whole planet?
Yes. As the planet warms, so temperatures go up, the risk of heat waves increases. If it's not raining, there's extra heat. So that heat goes into drying things out, increasing the risk of wildfire. The moisture that gets evaporated gets transported to the places where it is raining, and so there's more moisture, inevitably, that gets caught up in storms so that it rains harder than it otherwise would. And so at both ends of the water cycle, droughts and the floods, there's a greater risk of both.
Everywhere gets caught up in these things sooner or later. And so this is the way in which the climate system is changing. And these changes are challenging for us to deal with because this is a less benign climate. It's one where we have more extremes.
On August 31st, 2017, The New York Times did an editorial, “Beyond Houston, A World Awash” It talked about the thousand people who are dead or missing in Sierra Leone's capital from massive mudslides recently. And in the last paragraph, in talking about the fact that we need to do something to slow down global warming, it said: 'This is not something the Trump administration seems inclined to offer any more than it seems inclined to listen to the scientists or join with other nations to combat the problem or do something about America's own greenhouse gas emissions. This is unconscionable, even borderline nuts, especially now that President Trump himself has seen at firsthand the results of inaction in Houston." Dr.. Trenchers, could you comment on that?
Amen. I don't know what else to say.
For further information about Earth's warming climate, please see the Earthfiles Archive.
A few of many in-depth reports are listed below from the more than 2,500 in-depth reports organized
in chronological order from 1999 to 2017 ongoing.
"Earth Almost Certain to Warm by 2 Degrees Celsius," August 1, 2017, Scientific American:
"Hurricanes in A Warming World," August 31, 2017, Union of Concerned Scientists:
"Effective inundation of continental United States communities with 21st century sea level rise," July 12, 2017, Elementa, Science of the Anthropocene: https://www.elementascience.org/articles/10.1525/elementa.234/
"When Rising Seas Hit Home, Hard Choics Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities," July 2017, http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2017/07/when-rising-seas-hit-home-full-report.pdf
"Puerto Rico entirely without power as Hurricane Maria hammers island with devastating force," September 20, 2017, The Washington Post: