Superstorm/Climate Change Linkage

In a 31 August message to its members, climate protection nonprofit pointed out that:

“An excessively hot Gulf of Mexico and higher sea levels caused by climate change played a key role in the scale and ongoing destruction by Hurricane Harvey.”

The “350” in the organization’s name refers to the maximum number of parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere with which climate scientists say humanity can still survive and live well. Our atmosphere currently has over 400 ppm and it’s still rising, due to increasing emissions of so-called greenhouse gases:

● from fossil fuel combustion

● from industrial cattle farming and other agricultural practices

● from the decomposition of waste products in landfills and sewage treatment plants

● from a variety of other industrial and other chemical emissions.

The currently rapid increase of these greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is causing an historically unprecedented rapid heating of the Earth — not just on the land, but in the air, and especially in the oceans.

It used to be that meteorologists and climate scientists cautioned strongly against blaming any one extreme weather event on human-induced or human-accelerated climate change, marking a clear distinction between weather and climate. Weather is highly variable, day-to-day, while climate is what happens over the long term — so the two are not supposed to be equated.

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Recent studies, however, have measured extreme weather events differently, by including economic and social consequences among the impacts. These measurements, as well as more traditional ones (like peak wind speeds, quantity of rain dropped in the affected area, and areas destroyed by raging wildfires), are starting to show that extreme weather events are becoming more numerous and have greater adverse impacts, indicating that what once was a “climate change” now is considered an unexpected series of extreme weather fluctuations on much shorter time scales than previous climate changes (excepting those from meteorite impacts).

Both the frequencies and strengths of current-day storms, droughts, and wildfires are rising rapidly. We are seeing multiple “100-year storms” happen only a few years apart. This applies to tornados, hurricanes, droughts, and floods often following droughts in hilly or mountainous areas. (After long droughts with subsequent wildfires much of the vegetation and root systems are destroyed, along with their water retention services. This allows large quantities of rain water to flood down mountainsides, often thick with mud. The mud slides can be more destructive than the floods.)

As a result of these new storm strength metrics, climate scientists have become more willing to blame some extreme weather events on global warming. Harvey is a good example. When the ocean water is warmer (as in the Gulf of Mexico) more water evaporates from it into the atmosphere. The increased heat and water evaporation are like the fuel powering hurricanes, making them stronger, dropping more water, and happening more frequently.

Another example deals with superstorm tornados. In a 29 APR 2014 article in Wired magazine, Kate Green described a new way of measuring tornado intensity developed by James Elsner of Florida State University. Elsner “looked at the length and width of a storm’s damage path, correlated that to the amount of damage, and then used the result to estimate wind speed. A little more [number] crunching and bam! — integrated kinetic energy of a storm. …. Elsner’s analysis suggests that since the turn of the century, tornadoes have packed a more powerful punch.” Elsner’s tornado data is potted above.

Perhaps the premier climate scientist speaking out on this subject is Dr. James Hansen, formerly the top climate scientist at NASA, where he headed the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In 1988, Hansen first warned about the dangers of global warming when he testified before Congress. Recently interviewed on Democracy Now about the connections between Hurricane Harvey and climate change he pointed out that the warming ocean and the melting of land ice has caused a global average sea level rise of about 20 centimeters (7.9 inches). For various reasons it’s higher than that along the East Coast of the U.S. and its Gulf coast, where it’s closer to a whole foot of rise. “That’s a significant contribution to the magnitude of the storm surges that drive the water onto Houston and the other regions.”

Hansen said that the warming trend puts more water vapor into the atmosphere and that results in dumping more water as rainfall during severe storms as a result of human-induced global warming, now more than 1 degree Celsius. He summarized that: “Thunderstorms, tornadoes, tropical storms all get their energy from the latent energy of water vapor. And because the atmosphere now holds more water vapor, the strength of those storms can be greater. And so, there are substantial human-made effects on these storms. It’s not debatable now. These are all well-established facts.”

As put it: “Denying climate change puts people in harm’s way. Rising sea levels and stronger storms are real — and unless we take steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground and plan for a changing world, more people will lose their homes [and/]or their lives.”

The organization adds that “Millions of people in South Asia, Yemen, Niger, and beyond are being affected by flooding this week, in addition to Harvey’s overwhelming rains. This is not a coincidence, this is science. July 2017 was the hottest month ever measured on earth, raising the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico, and making Harvey wetter and stronger.”

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration, instead of supporting federally-funded climate scientists, is assigning them to other jobs, reducing their research funding, and attempting to quash their messages to the public. The subject of’s message: “The EPA is lashing out at climate scientists for telling the truth.” This federal agency most responsible for climate science is criticizing climate scientists trying to educate the public about the connections between Harvey and Irma and a hotter planet. “Trump’s climate denial is becoming climate censorship.”

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Note: It’s time for the media to hold politicians and other leaders accountable for climate change consequences. David Turnbull of Climate Change International has called for a tweet storm to encourage journalists, reporters, editors, and producers to be more pro-active. Link to more on this campaign.

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