The Climate Change Factor in Extreme Weather Events

The 4 Mile Creek area near Boulder, Colorado, was devastated by an extreme rain/flood event in September 2013.

An op-ed in today’s New York Times, How We Know It Was Climate Change,  is well worth reading. The author of the op-ed, N.S. Diffenbaugh, lays out the rationale for a link between climate change and extreme weather events. Diffenbaugh’s op-ed is based on a journal article written by himself and others that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS – 3/17), Quantifying the influence of global warming on unprecedented extreme climate events.

Both the op-ed and the PNAS article are essential reads for the new year.

Climate Change News

In reading through the torrent of recent news on climate change, I’ve come across a few events that stand out. Following is a brief summary of each taken from the original source:

Nicholas Stern: ‘I got it wrong on climate change – it’s far, far worse’

by Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott, The Observer, guardian.co.uk — 26 January 2013

“Lord Stern, author of the government-commissioned review on climate change that became the reference work for politicians and green campaigners, now says he underestimated the risks, and should have been more “blunt” about the threat posed to the economy by rising temperatures.

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are “on track for something like four”. Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, “I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise.”

[…]

A New Draft of the National Climate Assessment was released for public review in early January 2013

The following text is from the draft’s Introduction – Letter to the American People:

 “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. This report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee concludes that the evidence for a changing climate has strengthened considerably since the last National Climate Assessment report, written in 2009. Many more impacts of human-caused climate change have now been observed. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont have observed changes in their local climate that are outside of their experience. So, too, have coastal planners from Florida to Maine, water managers in the arid Southwest and parts of the Southeast, and Native Americans on tribal lands across the nation.”

The concluding paragraph of the letter states, “This National Climate Assessment collects, integrates, and assesses observations and research from around the country, helping to show what is actually happening and what it means for peoples’ lives, livelihoods, and future. This report includes analyses of impacts on seven selected sectors: human health, water, energy, transportation, agriculture, forests, and ecosystems and biodiversity. This report additionally focuses on the interactions among several sectors at the national level. It also assesses key impacts on the regions of the U.S.: Northeast, Southeast and Caribbean, Midwest, Great Plains, Southwest, Northwest, Alaska and the Arctic, Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands; as well as coastal areas, oceans, and marine resources. Finally, this report is the first to explicitly assess the current state of adaptation, mitigation, and decision support activities.”

President Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech, 21 January 2013 (taken from the Whitehouse transcript)

[…]

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. 

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.  That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

2012 – Warmest Year on Record

US_Jan-Dec2012_tempanom_300NOAA’s National Climate Data Center (NCDC) announced today that 2012 was the warmest year on record for the contiguous U.S in over a century of record keeping. The average temperature for 2012 was 55.3°F. This is 3.2°F above the 20th century average and is 1.0°F above the previous 1998 record. Other temperature notables for 2012 include: the fourth warmest winter, an extremely warm spring, the second warmest summer, and a warmer than usual fall.

2012 was also the 15th driest year on record for the contiguous U.S., with an average of 26.57 inches, which is 2.57 inches below average. Snowpack totals in the Southern to Central Rockies were less than half of normal; winter snow cover for the contiguous U.S. was the third smallest on record. The minimal snowpack and the persistent dryness of 2011 set the stage for the pervasive drought conditions that occurred in many areas of the U.S. in 2012.

In regards to climate extremes, the U.S. Climate Extremes Index showed 2012 to be second most extreme year on record for the U.S. Catastrophic events such as Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Isaac, and tornadoes across several parts of the country, gave 2012 the edge over the former extreme weather year of 1998.

Mississippi River Water Wars

Water levels in the lower stretch of the Mississippi River are so low that the U.S. Coast Guard closed a stretch of the river today after a barge tow ran aground south of Memphis. Considering that water levels are projected to continue dropping due to the worst U.S. drought in 56 years over part of the Great Plains and Upper Midwest, navigation could become severely impacted.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that administers river and reservoir water levels, has come under pressure to delay or even to suspend the annual decrease in discharge from Missouri River reservoirs and to increase dredging and blasting work.

However, upstream water users are not rushing to agree to increased water releases. Water uses upstream include hydroelectric power, irrigation, recreation, and most recently  fracking, which is associated with Bakken oil shale production. And – even if the Corps opted to release more water for downstream users, it can’t because it must abide by the Missouri River Master Manual. Most crucially, though, the Missouri flow to the Mississippi through the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., must increase quickly or dangerous rock pinnacles near Thebes, Illinois will be exposed which could shut down barge traffic on the Mississippi by December 10th.

The economic impact of restricted or even halted shipping on the Mississippi River is considerable. As stated in a recent National Public Radio news segment, Water Levels Dangerously Low on Mississippi River,  …”about 60 percent of the country’s grain exports and 20 percent of its coal for electric generation travel by river…”. The urgency of this situation has escalated such that barge companies are pressing President Obama to declare an emergency along the Mississippi River.

The water wars continue….