Climate Central is a nonprofit science and media organization created to provide clear and objective information about climate change and its potential solutions.
Climate Change Intensified South Carolina Floods
By Amanda Holpuch, The Guardian
Scientists say climate change has exacerbated the effects of a storm blamed for at least 12 deaths in the southeastern U.S.
On Monday, after weekend downpours, flooding continued to overwhelm large parts of South Carolina and North Carolina in what was described as a “once-in-a-millennium” storm.
Individual weather events cannot be attributed to climate change, but climatologists say atmospheric conditions tied to climate change intensified this downpour.
An alert board announces the closing of Interstate 95 due to the flash floods at the crossing with Interstate 26 in South Carolina on Monday.
Credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images/The Guardian
“This is yet another example, like Sandy or Irene, of weather on ‘steroids’, another case where climate change worsened the effects of an already extreme meteorological event,” said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.
Mann said hurricane Joaquin intensified in the tropical Atlantic, which is experiencing record sea-surface temperatures. These temperatures helped the hurricane strengthen quickly and unusually warm, wet air fed it even more. That moisture turned into the record rainfall which fell on the Carolinas.
“In this case, we’re seeing once-in-a-thousand year flooding along the South Carolina coastline as a consequence of the extreme supply of moisture streaming in from hurricane Joaquin,” Mann said.
The “once-in-a-thousand” phrase does not mean the storm occurs once every 1,000 years, but rather that there is a 0.1% chance of such an intense storm occurring in any year.
After a week of steady rain, thousands of South Carolina residents faced the prospect of going days without running water, and daily life was disrupted by dams overflowing, bridges collapsing and hundreds of roads inundated by floodwaters .
“This is a Hugo-level event,” major general Robert Livingston, head of the South Carolina National Guard, said on Monday, referring to the September 1989 hurricane that devastated Charleston. “We didn’t see this level of erosion in Hugo. ... This water doesn’t fool around.”
At least 10 people have died in South Carolina and two in North Carolina, with about 1,000 forced into shelters. About 40,000 have been left without drinkable water.
South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, on Sunday told people to stay inside their homes for safety. The government closed 381 roads, including major interstates and 127 bridges.
Trees standing on saturated land toppled in high winds. One person was killed when a tree hit a car in North Carolina. A woman died after her car was swept away.
A pickup truck rests against the side of Gills Creek near a bridge in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday.
Credit: Chuck Burton/AP/The Guardian
Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center, said in an email that “no single weather event can be attributed to climate change."
But government-backed reports show that climate change can exacerbate the severity of storms. The 2009 National Climate Assessment said that by mid-century some parts of the US could experience two or more days of rainfall per year that exceed local records.
This is happening in parts of South Carolina. The National Weather Service said that it was the wettest day in the history of Columbia, the state capital.
On Monday Kristin Dow, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina, was stuck inside her Columbia home. She said nearby neighborhoods had been inundated, washing away buildings and making shopping centers look like lakes.
Dow assesses the impacts and probability of climate change and has edited government reports on the risks climate change presents to the southeast.
“It’s one thing to know there is a one in a thousand year chance but it’s another thing to imagine what it would look like on the ground,” she said.
The latest death caused by the floods, according to the Associated Press, occurred on Sunday night when a car drove into a barricade near Columbia and stalled. The driver drowned; a firefighter was able to rescue a passenger who climbed on top of the car.
“She came out the window,” said the Kershaw County coroner, David West. “How she got on top of the car and stayed there like she did with that water – there’s a good Lord.”
Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.
Study Ties Warming Temps to Uptick in Huge Wildfires
Catastrophic wildfires in the Western U.S. are often discussed in superlatives these days, with blazes burning land more violently and more frequently in recent years than at any point on record. Those changes are considered partly driven by global warming, and a new University of Wyoming study shows that even the smallest increase in average temperature — 0.5°C (0.9°F) — could bring a dramatic increase in wildfire activity at higher elevations.
The study also suggests that global warming may be ushering in an era of high-elevation wildfires unlike any seen in more than 1,000 years.
The Chiwaukum Fire in Washington State in 2014.
Credit: Washington DNR/flickr
The connection between catastrophic wildfires and climate change has been major news this year as record-breaking drought and withering heat have helped fuel more than 50,000 wildfires. Those blazes have scorched more than 9 million acres in the West and Alaska in 2015 — more land burned than at any point since 2006.
Warming in Alaska, where average temperatures have risen by 3°F in the last 50 years, is a prime suspect for huge wildfires there this year, while in the Lower 48, studies show that for every 1°C (1.8°F) of warming, the size of the area burned by wildfire in the West could quadruple.
The new study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides more evidence that even a small amount of warming has a huge effect on wildfire.
University of Wyoming researchers studied charcoal samples representing 2,000 years of wildfire that were taken from lake beds in a subalpine forest — above 8,000 feet — in northern Colorado’s Mount Zirkel Wilderness near Steamboat Springs. With them, they were able to measure the increased wildfire frequency during a period of global warming similar to today.
That period, called the Medieval Climate Anomaly, or MCA, was about 1,100 to 1,200 years ago, when average temperatures in Northern Colorado were 0.5°C warmer than they were the preceding century, but moisture levels were not dramatically different.
Before the warm period, about 50 percent of the sites the researchers studied burned per century, increasing to 83 percent during the warm period and declining to 33 percent afterward. Most sites burned roughly at a rate of every 360 years prior to the warm period, increasing to every 120 years during the warm period — a 260 percent increase. Fire frequency declined before temperatures cooled, however, and the researchers think that happened because there was little forest left to burn.
The study is the first to discover how much land across an entire mountain range burned over a period of 2,000 years and shows that large wildfires similar to those burning today only occurred when temperatures increased like they have in recent years, the study’s lead author, University of Wyoming Ph.D. candidate John Calder, said.
“When we look into the past for evidence of these large wildfires we only see them one time when temperatures rose about 1°F,” he said. “Our study then adds more evidence that the recent increase in large wildfires is related to climate change because the only time we see these types of large wildfires in the last 2,000 years is when we had a similar amount of warming.”
The study only applies to dense high elevation forests, not those that have burned at lower elevations elsewhere in Colorado.
“We don’t know how the other mountain ranges burned in the region, but expanding this study into other mountain ranges is something I would like to do,” Calder said.
Scientists not associated with the study say that it shows that the West may be on the cusp of a new era of catastrophic wildfire at high elevations, where severe fires typically burn less often because of cooler temperatures and greater moisture.
Tania Schoennagel, a research scientist at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, said the study provides two new insights into the connection between wildfire and climate change.
“While we generally expect warming temperatures and associated drought to increase wildfire activity, we don’t have a good calibration for what to expect with current (and) future warming,” she said. “The MCA is a good analog for recent warming, and a larger proportion of the study area burned during the beginning of the MCA than we have witnessed recently in similar subalpine landscapes. The authors suggest, therefore, that we can expect large areas of subalpine forests, which are climate-sensitive and fuel-laden, to burn in the coming decades.”
University of Wyoming scientist John Calder surveys Lake Eileen in Northern Colorado before taking a sediment core from the bottom of the lake.
Credit: John Calder
The second insight, she said, is that wildfire activity can decrease even in warmer temperatures. The study doesn’t directly say why that happened a millennium ago, but suggests that burned forests didn’t regenerate during the warm period.
Thomas Veblen, a University of Colorado geography professor, said the study is significant because of its discovery that wildfire activity increased during a warmer period but without an obvious decrease in precipitation. “This is an important finding because the increase in wildfire activity is associated with a rise in temperature,” he said.
Park Williams, an assistant research professor of biology and the paleoenvironment at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said this year’s big fires in the West have corresponded to temperatures higher than anyone there has seen in hundreds of years.
“Many studies have suggested that this is not a coincidence,” Williams said. “Warming promotes wildfire as long as there are adequate fuels and ignition sources. This study provides some independent evidence from a warm period hundreds of years ago that support that hypothesis.”
Both Calder and Schoennagel said that it would be inaccurate to make a direct connection between this study and the wildfires burning today in California because they involve different forest types.
“However, the regional trends in wildfire across the West this year reflect the study’s findings of wildfire increases in response to warming,” Schoennagel said. “We should expect more of the same to come.”
Record El Niño Set to Cause Hunger for 10 Million Poorest
By Oliver Milman, The Guardian
At least 10 million of the world’s poorest people are set to go hungry this year because of failing crops caused by one of the strongest El Niño climatic events on record, Oxfam has warned.
The charity said several countries were already facing a “major emergency,” such as Ethiopia, where 4.5 million are in need of food aid because of a prolonged scarcity of rain this year.
Ethiopian children at a food distribution centre. El Niño events have caused crops to fail in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Credit: STR/Reuters/The Guardian
Floods, followed by drought, have slashed Malawi’s maize production by more than a quarter, farmers in central America have suffered from two years of drought and El Niño conditions have already reduced the Asian monsoon over India, potentially triggering a wider drought across the east of the continent.
Indonesia’s government has declared drought in 34 of the country’s provinces because of El Niño, while 2 million people in Papua New Guinea have been affected by crops shrivelling in heat in some parts of the country and severe frosts in its highlands.
El Niño is a periodic climatic phenomenon where waters of the eastern tropical Pacific warm, triggering a range of potential consequences for global weather. While parts of South America are typically doused in heavy rainfall, warmer, drought-like conditions are experienced in Australia, south-east Asia and southern Africa.
The UK Met Office has predicted this year’s El Niño could be the strongest on record since 1950, warning that famine could grip west Africa.
An Oxfam report, called Entering Uncharted Waters, states the El Niño will rival that of 1998, which caused droughts, floods and forest fires that resulted in 2,000 deaths and caused about $33 billion in property damage.
The report warns “major humanitarian emergencies” were possible without proper intervention, pointing out that failure to respond to drought has proved disastrous in recent years, such as 2011 when rains failed in the Horn of Africa and more than 260,000 people died.
Dr. Helen Szoke, the chief executive of Oxfam Australia, said the charity had already started work with communities, including in Papua New Guinea, in an attempt to stave off crop failures.
“We are working with farmers in PNG to plant drought-resistant seeds and to help them with the collection of rainwater,” she said. “Vanuatu is another country where we are doing that work although, cruelly, they’ve already had a head start due to the repairing of water systems due to cyclone Pam.
“Our staff in Zimbabwe and Malawi, for example, are expressing concern about the preparedness of the seasonal crop. People who rely on subsistence farming aren’t necessarily prepared for frosts or drought, which is when food security becomes an issue.
“The poorer countries don’t have the systems in place and are much more vulnerable. Potentially millions of people will be affected by a lack of access to water and if food prices go up, the poor will miss out again.”
El Niño-like conditions were expected last year but failed to materialise. The El Niño now brewing in the Pacific Ocean is expected to end in January but may, in the long term, become more frequent. Research published in Nature Climate Change last year predicted El Niño frequency could double because of climate change fuelled by the release of greenhouse gases.
Last year was the warmest year globally on record, with 2015 and 2016 potentially set to cause this record to topple again.
Szoke said the international community needed to ensure El Niño conditions weren’t replicated every year by changes to rainfall, extreme heat and cyclones caused by climate change.
“We can’t keep just patching up communities,” she said. “We need a long-term vision for climate change. We need to reduce emissions, move away from old technologies and address this issue. We have an opportunity to do that in Paris [at UN climate talks] later this year.”
Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.
Tar Sands Mining Makes Leap from Canada to Utah
The Canadian tar sands, or oil sands, are much more carbon-laden than most other fossil fuels produced in North America, and their possible outsized impact on the climate is one of the primary reasons the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil to Texas refineries, is so controversial.
Despite long odds as oil prices continue their dip below $50 per barrel, commercial tar sands mining is coming for the first time to the U.S., where U.S. Oil Sands and MCW Energy Group, both Alberta-based companies, have begun producing tar sands from mines in eastern Utah.
A tar sands production test site in eastern Utah.
Up to 76 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil may be locked up in deposits of thick clay-like and hydrocarbon-laced sand called bitumen beneath the state’s redrock canyon country, according to University of Utah estimates. (The Canadian oil industry refers to the sticky bitumen as “oil sands,” but in the U.S., the federal government uses “tar sands,” a name the Canadian industry considers pejorative because it is used by its critics.)
Oil price volatility makes tar sands development in Utah — the only state in the U.S. with large deposits of it — uncertain. But if successful, it will be a historic moment in the history of oil and gas production in the U.S.
“There have been numerous attempts to develop the oil sands resource in Uintah County, Utah, over the past eight decades,” Jennifer Spinti, a research associate professor for the Institute for Clean and Secure Energy at the University of Utah, said. “While the oil sands have been exploited commercially for use as a paving material, no company has ever produced bitumen at a commercial scale.”
If the industry does gain a foothold in the U.S., the climate implications could be significant.
In evaluating the climate impacts of Keystone XL, the U.S. State Department concluded that Canadian tar sands production is 17 percent more carbon intensive than production of an average barrel of oil. In June, a group of 100 scientists called for a moratorium on tar sands development, saying it is incompatible with stabilizing the climate and meeting greenhouse gas reductions targets.
But U.S. Oil Sands, which did not respond to requests for comment, is moving ahead with production, even as tar sands producers in Canada struggle to make a profit as crude oil prices fall.
U.S. Oil Sands, which has acquired the rights to produce tar sands at mines on 50 square miles of land between Salt Lake City and Moab, Utah, plans to produce 2,000 barrels of oil per day by the end of the year, according to documents the company filed with Canadian securities regulators.
“This is a breakthrough in technology,” U.S. Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd told the Associated Press. “If we’re able to demonstrate to the investment world that this is possible, there are many, many places where this could be done.”
MCW Energy began producing oil sands at a facility near Vernal, Utah, last year, and plans a 5,000 barrel-per-day operation there.
The economic winds are blowing hard against U.S. oil sands producers, however.
Spinti’s 2013 economic assessment for Utah tar sands development shows that any mine producing 50,000 barrels per day would be unprofitable even when West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil prices are above $100 per barrel. On Thursday, the WTI price was about $45.
“I expect that all oil sands operations, both in the U.S. and Canada, will find the economic climate to be very difficult in the near term,” Spinti said.
However, MCW Energy says it can produce oil sands in Utah for less than $30 per barrel.
Other challenges facing future tar sands development in Utah include climate policy, environmental regulations, complications with land ownership and the remoteness of some of the tar sands deposits, she said.
“Some of the federal lands containing oil sands resources are located in national parks, national monuments, wilderness and wilderness study areas, so those areas would not be developable,” Spinti said. “However, the state has shown significant interest in developing the oil sands resources on its lands and there are private landowners interested in development as well.”
From a climate perspective, any kind of tar sands development in the U.S. would present a threat to the globe’s ability to meet climate goals, said Paul Ekins, a professor of resources and environmental policy at University College London.
Ekins published a study in the journal Nature in January showing that most Canadian tar sands would have to be left in the ground in order for the globe to cost-effectively keep global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
“The world is awash with fossil fuels so if we are to get a handle on climate change, any new production of hydrocarbons will have to be balanced by reduced production elsewhere,” Ekins said. “Those who wish to produce U.S. oil sands should therefore be asked which fossil fuel production elsewhere they will substitute for.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect new information about MCW Energy Group.
NASA Satellite Captures 3-D View of Hurricane Joaquin
Hurricane Joaquin continues to strengthen in the Atlantic. The storm is edging closer to the Bahamas with landfall there likely in the next 24-36 hours followed by a potential date with the East Coast.
The storm reached Category 1 status on Wednesday morning and has continued to strengthen throughout the day. As of Wednesday afternoon, the storm had 85 mph winds and stood about 190 miles to the east of the Bahamas. The storm is expected to continue strengthening on its way there before turning northward toward what could be a U.S. landfall somewhere between the Carolinas and New Jersey.
Forecasters have a number of tools at their disposal to monitor the storm including a constellation of satellites. NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement satellite — the agency’s most advanced precipitation satellite — is one, keeping a close eye on just how much rain the storm is dropping. NASA launched the satellite last year with the intent of improving both weather forecasts and climate projections. It’s already provided valuable information about all kinds of precipitation, including the major snowstorms that buried the Northeast last year.
Now NASA has published a 3-D “flyby” of Hurricane Joaquin. The findings show rainfall rates of 2-5 inches an hour near the storm’s core. The flyby is based on data taken Tuesday when the storm was still battling wind shear. That’s since become less of an issue and the storm has grown stronger and more organized as a result.
That heavy rain is expected to inundate the Bahamas starting Wednesday night or early Thursday. According to the National Hurricane Center, 5-10 inches of rain is likely in the central portion of the island chain and up to 20 inches isn’t out of the question for certain areas.
MODIS satellite image of Hurricane Joaquin on Wednesday afternoon.
Hurricane-force winds and a storm surge of 2-4 feet are also in the forecast for the islands.
After the Bahamas, Joaquin is expected to hook north and continue strengthening over a patch of exceptionally warm water and the storm could reach major hurricane status — that is, a Category 3 or greater storm — in the next 48 hours.
While landfall in the U.S. is looking more likely, there’s still some uncertainty thanks to the complex weather pattern over the Eastern Seaboard. Where Joaquin goes after the Bahamas and how fast it moves will likely become more clear in the next 48 hours.
The East Coast still has plenty of wild weather to deal with before clarity on Joaquin arrives. Heavy rains are buffeting the region through the weekend with up to 11 inches of rain possible in parts of the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic.
Scientists: Offshore Wind a ‘Missed Opportunity’ in U.S.
The United States’ first offshore wind farm is now being built off the coast of Rhode Island. But the U.S. may be farther from large-scale offshore wind development than it was a decade ago partly because the federal government has not focused urgently enough on building renewables, a group of University of Delaware scientists says.
The government, through its offshore wind leasing program, is promoting offshore turbines for job growth and economic development rather than harnessing their most effective long-term potential — to tackle climate change, the scientists at the University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration wrote in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm in the United Kingdom.
“Offshore wind development has been marketed piecemeal, lease-block-by-lease-block, auction-by-auction, or project-by-project, and as fostering jobs and economic development rather than positioned as a way to improve air quality, mitigate climate change and suppress electricity prices,” the paper says.
The U.S. is far behind Europe in developing offshore wind farms, a zero-carbon energy source with huge development potential off U.S. coastlines. Turbines began construction in Europe a decade ago, at about the same time the U.S. began its offshore wind leasing program.
Today, there are more than 2,300 wind turbines twirling off the coasts of 11 European countries, with many more on the way. In the U.S., other than several federal offshore lease sales that have been completed during that time, there has been little movement to harness the 4,000 gigawatts of offshore wind power potential within 50 miles of the shorelines on both coasts.
The Block Island Wind Farm under construction is a demonstration project that will help Americans understand what offshore wind power looks like, but there are no other wind farms scheduled to be built after it, the paper’s lead author, University of Delaware energy policy professor Jeremy Firestone, said.
The U.S. Department of Energy paints a more optimistic picture of the current status of the offshore wind industry. The agency says in a report published Tuesday that even though the Block Island project is the only offshore wind farm under construction, companies have secured the rights to build 13 other wind farms through the offshore wind leasing program, and more than 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind power capacity could be operating by 2020.
The Energy Department report says that projects totaling 15,650 megawatts of electric generating capacity are in various stages of development in the U.S. If all those wind farms are constructed, their generating capacity would surpass the amount of power Europe can currently produce from offshore wind farms. And, lessons learned there could make offshore wind farm development happen faster in the U.S.
“The progress towards cost reduction in the European offshore wind energy industry should translate to U.S. projects and allow developers to offer offshore wind power at increasingly competitive prices relative to other low-carbon sources of electricity generation,” the DOE report says.
But the development of those wind farms is not certain, and Firestone said federal policy will have to change for offshore wind to develop more quickly in U.S. waters.
“United States offshore wind has so far remained a missed opportunity, given its huge resource size and proximity to population centers, the magnitude of the climate change problem and the public’s hunger for transformative energy policy with offshore wind as a part of the vanguard,” Firestone’s paper says. “Among reasons for Europe’s success are political will, price and policy support and spacial planning, although some European countries have been more successful than others.”
A lifeboat rescue drill near an offshore windfarm in the United Kingdom.
The paper says that offshore wind took off in Europe a decade ago after the European Union put a price on carbon emissions. And, in 2009, the EU aligned its energy policy with its climate goals, relying more on the adoption of clean energy rather than on switching from coal to natural gas for electric power generation as the U.S. is doing today.
Even though onshore wind and solar are growing quickly in the U.S., utilities here are quickly embracing natural gas as their fuel of choice as prices have fallen and climate policy makes it more challenging for coal plants to operate profitably. Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, but still emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal when it burns.
There are plenty of things the U.S. could do make future offshore wind development in the U.S. more certain, including changing how offshore wind development areas are leased, Firestone said.
The United States should look to maximize installed offshore wind capacity over the next 10 years responsibly, rather than maximize short-term government revenue through lease auctions, regardless of whether they result in new wind farm development, the paper says.
The paper calls for an offshore wind tax credit, loan-guarantees for those financing new wind farms and better regional planning to allow offshore wind to effectively integrate with onshore power grids. And, more research is needed on ways to reduce the environmental impacts of offshore wind farms and on how to harness the most energy from the wind blowing across the ocean.
Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, said that the paper’s call for loan guarantees and tax credits for offshore wind are reasonable to help kick-start new development.
“The suggested next steps would definitely increase the likelihood of faster offshore wind development in the U.S.,” he said. “I also think it is necessary to educate the public and policymakers about the health and climate cost savings to the U.S. of developing offshore wind.”
Climate Model Shows Limits of Global Emissions Pledges
The Paris climate talks are a little more than two months away and most of the world’s big carbon emitters have submitted their climate pledges. That’s the good news. The bad news is that despite many countries pledging to cut carbon emissions in the coming decades, the current commitments may not be enough to limit warming to the world’s agreed upon goal of 2°C (3.6°F).
The pledges have been rolling in all year. On Monday, Brazil said it would cut emissions to 43 percent of 2005 levels in the next 15 years, stop illegal deforestation and reforest 30 million acres of land. Deforestation is a major source of Brazil’s carbon emissions.
The pledge puts Brazil in the company of 82 other countries — including the U.S., China, and other large carbon polluters in the European Union — that have submitted their climate pledges to the United Nations.
To gauge the effectiveness of the proposed emissions cuts, the nonprofit group Climate Interactive has put them into a climate model to show just how much the current goals would limit warming.
The results are mixed. The current emissions pledges will decrease warming. In a business as usual scenario, warming could go as high as 4.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100. The current goals would drop that to about 3.5°C of warming, one degree lower.
While that is progress, it’s still pretty far from the goal to limit warming by 2°C. The 2°C limit was adopted by the European Union in 2009 and has since become the benchmark for warming for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN.
If warming rises above 2°C, the effects of climate change would only intensify. Extreme weather like droughts and large tropical cyclones would become more common, fragile ecosystems like coral reefs would be at risk of destruction and polar ice melting would swamp many coastal cities over the next century.
Several countries’ climate emissions goals,, including Russia, Canada, Japan and Australia, have all been rated inadequate by Climate Action Tracker. More ambitious goals from these relatively large emitters could bring the world closer to the 2°C goal.
Study: New York City at Higher Risk for Coastal Floods
A combination of climate-driven sea level rise and stronger tropical cyclones is putting New York City at risk for more and higher floods like those seen during Hurricane Sandy, a group of researchers has found.
In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers compared sea level and storm surge heights from 850 to 1800, before significant human influences on the climate, to the period from 1970 to 2005.
The average flood height increased by about 4 feet in New York between the two time periods and with continued warming, larger and more extreme storms along with even higher sea level is likely to cause more frequent and intense flooding.
The FDR Drive flooded after Hurricane Sandy on October 30, 2012.
Credit: David Shankbone/flickr
“The study is the preamble for what we have to be concerned about,” said Klaus Jacob, special research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who was not involved in the research. “Areas like the Rockaways, Staten Island, are just not sustainable. They cannot exist in 100 or 150 years as they exist now.”
Global sea level has already risen about a foot since 1900, and is projected to rise as much as 39 inches by the end of the century. Hurricanes are also expected to be stronger and more frequent. For New York, this could mean more damage from Sandy-like storms.
“Sea level rise in increasing flood heights, and there’s the added fact that characteristics of tropical cyclones are being impacted by climate change,” said Andra Reed, lead author of the study. "Those things combined are not good."
The chance of another storm like Sandy, with a 9-foot storm surge, is now about once every 130 years, compared to once every 3,000 years in the pre-anthropogenic era, Reed said.
“We found that the biggest tropical cyclones tend to be larger, with a larger radius and maximum winds of these storms in the later anthropogenic time period,” Reed said. “We also found that the most intense storms are even more intense in the later time period."
Destruction left behind by Superstorm Sandy in Rockaway Beach.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Roman Iakoubtchik/flickr
With more intense storms and rising seas, residents of New York need to be prepared for more flooding.
Since Sandy nearly three years ago, Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio have convened two expert panels on climate change, one in 2013 and another in 2015. The most recent report provided climate projections through 2100 and laid out the increasing public health risks from extreme heat and coastal storms.
“This research is telling us that we need to have risk management strategies in place and we need to start trying to do something to mitigate the climate change,” Reed said. “If climate change is left unchecked it’s obviously going to continue to cause even higher sea level, and likely continue to get even more extreme and large storms."
Warming May Boost Carbon Storage on Public Lands
Public lands are considered one of America’s best defenses against rising greenhouse gas emissions because the forests there pull vast quantities of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in tree trunks and roots.
As the climate warms, public lands may become even more valuable in America’s effort to fight greenhouse gas emissions because climate change may increase the amount of carbon federal public lands in the Lower 48 states are able to store by nearly 20 percent by 2050, a new study shows.
Giant sequoia trees at Sequoia National Park in California.
The study, conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first of its kind researching the carbon storage and sequestration potential on federal land. It considered only carbon storage potential on federal land in the Lower 48 states, excluding Hawaii and Alaska.
Forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in tree trunks, roots and other woody biomass, creating what scientists call a “carbon sink” — a reservoir of stored carbon. When a forest is cut down or burns, however, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
Federal public land accounts for 23.5 percent of the land area of the conterminous U.S. Those public lands include the carbon-dense rainforests in Olympic National Park in Washington state, the giant sequoias and redwoods in California’s national parks and forests, the piney woods of national forests across the Southeast, and, among many other places, the millions of acres of unbroken Rocky Mountain wilderness in Idaho and Montana.
“Increasing carbon sequestration on land is one of the main ways to offset greenhouse gas emissions,” said study co-author Shuguang Liu, a scientist studying carbon sinks at the USGS in Sioux Falls, S.D. “This is the first systematic national assessment of carbon storage and sequestration potential on federal lands.”
Liu’s research, based on computer models that project how climate change will alter the vegetation density of the landscape in the U.S., assumes that federal agencies will manage public land to prevent new development or logging from reducing the land’s ability to store carbon. The study shows that public lands in the Lower 48 stored 11,613 teragrams of carbon in 2005, rising to nearly 14,000 teragrams by 2050, a 19.4 percent increase. One teragram is equal to 1 trillion grams.
Scientists unaffiliated with the research say the study does not account for the many uncertainties about how drought, wildfires and other extreme weather will affect U.S. forests in the future.
“I’m highly skeptical that this is a robust estimate of the future of U.S. carbon sinks,” William R.L. Anderegg, an assistant biology professor at the University of Utah and associate research scholar at Princeton University, said.
Anderegg’s own research shows that drought may stunt forests’ ability to capture carbon and that climate change could drive public lands to store anywhere between 20 percent less carbon than today to 20 percent more.
“They use older versions of climate models and older versions of vegetation models, the latter of which are known to poorly capture some of the major drivers that we have seen emerge in the past decade (extreme drought, beetle outbreaks, fires) on western U.S. public lands,” Anderegg said of the USGS study.
There is also a lot of uncertainty about how much an increase in carbon storage on public lands could help reduce overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “The uncertainty there is so large that I don’t think I would bank too much on it,” he said.
Despite its flaws, the study shows the value of federal lands in a changing climate, Anderegg said.
“What this study does highlight quite well is that U.S. ecosystems on federal lands are a net sink of carbon, and this is an incredibly valuable service to society,” he said.
Steve McNulty, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Southeast Climate Hub, said the study affirms that federal lands contribute to reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere.
“But, they are not a panacea,” he said. “Federal lands, especially forest lands, have had a ‘multiple use’ mandate for decades. Carbon sequestration has become part of that multiple use objective. There are many factors that could reduce the carbon (storage) increase, including increased wildfire — as we are seeing this year — or increased tropical storm-related damage.”
Neither of those things are included in the models the USGS researchers used, McNulty said.
More Super El Niños Could Decimate Pacific Corals
The long list of maladies attributed to El Niño continues to grow. In addition to affecting weather patterns around the world, the climate phenomenon also has a profound impact on ocean levels in the Pacific that can hurt coral reefs.
New research chronicles those impacts and also points to more extremes in the future as climate change adds another layer to El Niño’s fury.
In its most basic form, El Niño is a warming of waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific. But El Niño also causes warm water to pile up on that side of the Pacific and in a classic case of equilibrium, it leaves a dearth of water in the western portion of the ocean basin. During super El Niños like the 1997-98 event, sea levels in the western Pacific can drop by as much as a foot, exposing coral reefs to the air. This year's strong El Niño has caused a sea level drop of up to 7 inches in the western Pacific.
There’s even a word for it in Samoan: taimasa, which means foul-smelling tide. The stinky tide is more than a cause to pinch your nose — it also has major ramifications for the reefs that protect small islands.
“What happens with low sea level events, the reefs stick out of the water and they die off,” Matthew Widlansky, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii said.
Widlansky led research published on Friday in Science Advances that shows that in the future, climate change will more than double the likelihood of extreme changes in sea levels that could harm coral reefs. Extreme sea level drops in the western Pacific will also last longer, putting coral under even more stress.
“A takeaway from this is that greenhouse gas-induced warming doesn’t necessarily mean constant sea level rise, especially for the tropical pacific,” he said. “But if we have more extreme fluctuations in sea level, this is another stress on coral reefs in addition to warming oceans and ocean acidification.”
The warm waters associated with the current El Niño and man-made warming is already responsible for a major bleaching event underway in the Pacific. Bleaching events weaken or even kill coral. Rising acidification levels also contribute to coral bleaching.
A coral reef near American Samoa's Swain Island.
Coral form a key defense against storm surge and provide vital economic opportunities for 200 million people worldwide. Island nations — already some of the most vulnerable countries in the world — would face even more challenges to their very existence.
“The coral reefs that surround many of the island nations in this region are in for a triple whammy: to the already documented threats of rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, we can add sea level extremes linked to El Niño and La Niña,” Michael McPhaden, a senior scientist at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, said.
Of course, on the flip side of the Pacific, sea levels will rise higher and remain that way more often. The results could mean more coastal flooding, especially as sea levels rise. This year’s El Niño already has cities on both coasts of the U.S. on the lookout for more coastal flooding.
Widlansky said the likelihood that both sides of the Pacific will face increased threats from super El Niños is reason to consider better forecasting and preparation for the highs and lows El Niño brings.