Climate Change Blog 22.
Facts on the Ground:
A rare tornado warning was issued in the New York region on May 28, causing confusion and concern as a thunderstorm struck. That was unusual. But given the horrific storms in much of the Rocky Mountains, the Midwest and South, why not here? Between April and May alone, tornadoes have caused at least 40 deaths and scores of injuries there.
Floods damaged parts of Oklahoma in late May. The town of Braggs was turned into an island. To get gas, people wrote their names on their gas cans as a friend or neighbor made a gas run by boat to the mainland. There were feed runs for livestock, medicine runs, and grocery runs. Power was lost for days and more than a dozen people — including children and the elderly — were evacuated by two of the Oklahoma National Guard’s Black Hawk helicopters.
Storms also flooded the Arkansas River. Nearly everyone and everything had to be transported by air or by water. Floodwaters stretched about a mile over Highway 10, a main artery so submerged that even common landmarks were unrecognizable.
In Arkansas, the river topped two flood levees in Logan and Perry Counties, and shelters opened in Fort Smith, Ark. In Oklahoma, all 77 of the State’s counties were in a state of emergency The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management reported six fatalities and 107 injuries attributed to the flooding and severe weather.
The Army Corps of Engineers increased the release of water into the flooded Arkansas River from the Keystone Dam in Oklahoma to 275,000 cubic feet per second, hoping to keep the rising water from overtopping the dam’s spillway.
“We are planning for and preparing for the flood of record, and we think everybody along the Arkansas River corridor ought to be doing the same,” the mayor of Tulsa, G.T. Bynum, told reporters. “It’s a high-risk situation when you’re talking about infrastructure that’s being tested in such a strong way.”
In the Kansas City-area, tornadoes and destruction, 12 straight days of it, was the story. Storms destroyed homes and structures across a wide swath. Multiple tornadoes also hit Ohio and Indiana destroying homes and knocking down power lines. At least one death was reported. Federal government weather forecasters logged preliminary reports of more than 500 tornadoes in a 30-day period — a rare figure.
May 28 was the 12th consecutive day with at least eight tornado reports, breaking the record. “We are flirting in uncharted territory,” said Patrick Marsh, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. “Typically, you’d see a break of a day or two in between these long stretches, but we’re just not getting that right now.”
Climate change is increasingly linked to extreme weather, but limited historical information, especially when compared with temperature data that goes back more than a century, has made it difficult for researchers to determine whether rising temperatures are making tornadoes more common and severe. But as records fall, the facts speak for themselves.
At least 10 tornados touched down across six counties in OH, causing spotty phone service, blocking streets, boil-water advisories and evacuations. Tens of thousands of homes lost electricity as emergency workers went door-to-door in some communities searching for victims. Ohio Task Force One, an elite search-and-rescue team, was assigned to work in part of Montgomery County.
Mike Robbins, the emergency management director for Mercer County, OH, reported that an 81-year-old man was killed when powerful winds picked up a vehicle and slammed it into his home. At least 40 homes were destroyed or seriously damaged by the storm, which the Weather Service rated as at least an EF3 tornado, with winds of 136 miles per hour or higher.
Due to this unprecedented run of storms, the nation’s tornado death toll has reached its highest level since 2014. So far this year, of the 40 tornado-related deaths in the US, most were in Beauregard, Ala., where 23 people were killed in early March. At least eight states have had tornado-related fatalities since Jan. 1.
Damage also was reported in Indiana from violent storms, as well as lethal tornadoes which killed 3 people and injured at least 20 in Jefferson City, Mo. The tornado was part of a band of storms that raged through the Plains and the Midwest. One struck the Missouri capital destroying buildings, felling power poles and sparking a vast emergency response as people were trapped in rubble. State troopers and local emergency personnel went door-to-door searching for survivors. At least three people were killed by a tornado in Golden City, southeast of Kansas City.
In Jefferson City, officials said that roughly three square miles had been especially hard-hit and that flying trees and debris were responsible for some of the at least 20 injuries that had been tallied in the capital.
In April, the South suffered lethal storms which killed 3, Including 2 children, in Texas. The children, who were 3 and 8, were in a car hit by a tree blown over in Pollok, Tex.
The National Weather Service said severe storms and damaging wind and hail hit many areas across the South, particularly from eastern Texas to western Alabama. “I’ve seen tornadoes but nothing like this,” Sheriff James E. Campbell of Cherokee County told a local news station.
Internationally, in early May, a rare summer cyclone, “Fani”, forced the evacuation of millions of people in South Asia killing at least 34 people in India and 15 people in Bangladesh and destroying hundreds of homes. Categorized by the India Meteorological Department as "extremely severe" when it made landfall in India, the cyclone lashed coastal areas with heavy rain and winds of up to 127 miles per hour.
Casualties in South Asia were fewer than those caused by previous, similar cyclones. Preparations in India for Cyclone Fani demonstrated greatly improved disaster readiness since 1999, when a 'super' cyclone killed about 10,000 people and devastated large parts of the state.
In preparation for Cyclone Fani, more than 1 million people were evacuated from about 15,000 villages and 46 towns in India's Odisha state. The cyclone forced the evacuation of more than 1.6 million people in Bangladesh. Authorities in both countries sent warning text messages to tens of millions of people in the storm's path, and in Bangladesh, thousands of volunteers went through villages with megaphones, urging residents to move to shelters.
Cyclone season in the region typically runs from April to December, with activity peaking in May and November. Cyclone Fani is one of the rarest of rare summer cyclones to hit Odisha in 43 years. It is also one of three to hit in the last 150 years.
A recent 1,500-page report by the United Nations is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe. Its alarming message is that humans are speeding the extinction of perhaps a million plant and animal species and altering the natural world at an unprecedented pace. Such destruction poses a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival.
The report, compiled by hundreds of international experts and based on thousands of scientific studies, is the most exhaustive examination yet at the decline in global biodiversity and the resulting danger for the future of human civilization. A summary of its findings, approved by 132 countries including the US, was released in early May. The full report is due later this year.
The report bluntly states that in most major land habitats, from Africa’s savannas to South America’s rain forests, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has decreased 20% or more, mainly in the past century. Increasing pressure from the human population, which exceeds 7 billion, and activities including farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate “unprecedented in human history.”
Global warming is specified as a new threat and a key driver of wildlife decline, by altering or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in. Combined with the above-noted human activities damaging the environment, climate change is rushing a growing number of species, such as the Bengal tiger, toward extinction.
Biodiversity loss is projected to accelerate through 2050, especially in the tropics, unless countries drastically increase their conservation efforts.
The report details how closely human well-being is dependent upon the health of other species.
A previous report by the group estimated that, in the Americas, nature provides $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year. The Amazon rain forest absorbs immense quantities of carbon dioxide which slows the pace of global warming. Wetlands purify drinking water. Coral reefs sustain tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean. Exotic tropical plants are used to produce a variety of medicines.
All of these natural landscapes are declining and so too are the services they provide and upon which humans depend. (Remember my Life Pyramid? See Blog 1.)
Human food production is higher than ever, but land degradation is harming agricultural productivity on 23% of the planet. The decline of wild bees and other pollinating insects is putting at risk about $577 billion in annual crop production. The loss of coastal mangrove forests and coral reefs could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.
The authors note that so much devastation of nature has occurred that traditional piecemeal efforts to protect individual species and isolated wildlife refuges will not suffice. The report calls for “transformative changes” to wasteful consumption, agriculture’s environmental footprint and illegal logging and fishing.
“It’s no longer enough to focus just on environmental policy,” said Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the study and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. “We need to build biodiversity considerations into trade and infrastructure decisions, the way that health or human rights are built into every aspect of social and economic decision-making.”
Scientists have cataloged perhaps 1.3 million of the approximate 8 million plant and animal species on the planet, most of them insects. Since 1500, at least 680 species have gone extinct, including the Pinta giant tortoise of the Galápagos Islands.
The report notes that the current extinction rate is tens to hundreds of times higher than in the past 10 million years. “Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before … around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken.”
Absent significant changes, the planet may lose 40% of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals. More than 500,000 land species have insufficient natural habitat to ensure long-term survival.
Over the past 50 years, global biodiversity loss has primarily been driven by human activities including clearing of forests for farmland, expansion of roads and cities, logging, hunting, overfishing, water pollution and the transport of invasive species around the globe.
In Indonesia, the rain forest has largely been replaced by palm oil plantations which has pushed the now critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers to the brink of extinction. In Mozambique, ivory poachers slaughtered nearly 7,000 elephants between 2009 and 2011 alone. In Argentina and Chile, the introduction of the North American beaver in the 1940s devastated native trees (but helped other species such as the Magellanic woodpecker).
In all, human activity has significantly altered three-quarters of the world’s land area including the destruction of 85% of the world’s wetlands, since the 18th century.
Given the lack of progress in reducing the burning of fossil fuels, global warming likely will compound the damage. Roughly 5% of species worldwide are threatened with climate-related extinction if global average temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, having already warmed 1 degree C.
“If climate change were the only problem we were facing, a lot of species could probably move and adapt,” Richard Pearson, an ecologist at the University College of London, said. “But when populations are already small and losing genetic diversity, when natural landscapes are already fragmented, when plants and animals can’t move to find newly suitable habitats, then we have a real threat on our hands.”
The extinction of species not only makes the world a less wondrous place, it also poses risks to people. We rely on significantly fewer varieties of plants and animals to produce food than in the past. Of the 6,190 domesticated mammal breeds used in agriculture, more than 559 have gone extinct and 1,000 more are threatened. This makes the food system less resilient against pests and diseases. It likely will be harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops and livestock to cope with the extreme heat and drought that climate change has brought.
To date, more than 15% of the world’s land and 7% of its oceans have been protected as nature reserves and wilderness areas. But only a fraction of the most important areas for biodiversity have been protected, and many reserves are protected on paper only and still suffer from poaching, logging and/or illegal fishing. Climate change is expected to further undermine existing wildlife refuges by shifting the geographic ranges of species that currently live within them.
In addition to advocating the expansion of protected areas, the report outlines numerous changes to limit the drivers of biodiversity loss. Farmers and ranchers must adopt new techniques to grow more food on less land. Consumers in wealthy countries must waste less food and use natural resources more efficiently. Governments must strengthen and enforce environmental laws, especially on illegal logging and fishing and reducing the discharge of heavy metals and untreated wastewater into the environment.
The authors state that limiting global warming will be critical, although they caution that the development of biofuels to reduce carbon emissions could end up harming biodiversity by further destroying forests.
Complicating these efforts is the fact that many developing countries face pressure to exploit their natural resources to combat poverty.
“You can’t just tell leaders in Africa that there can’t be any development and that we should turn the whole continent into a national park,” said Emma Archer, who led the group’s earlier assessment of biodiversity in Africa. “But we can show that there are trade-offs, that if you don’t take into account the value that nature provides, then ultimately human well-being will be compromised.”
In the next two years, diplomats from around the world will meet for the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty, to discuss how they can increase their efforts at conservation. Even in the new report’s most optimistic scenario, through 2050 the world’s nations would only slow the decline of biodiversity — not stop it.
“At this point,” said Jake Rice, a fisheries scientist who led an earlier report on biodiversity in the Americas, “our options are all about damage control.”
Trump has continued to question not just the existence of climate change but now intends to undermine the science supporting it. The Trump-appointed director of the United States Geological Survey, James Reilly, a petroleum geologist, ordered that scientific assessments produced by that office use only computer-generated climate models that project the impact of climate change through 2040, rather than through the end of the century, as had been done in previous assessments.
Scientists say that will give a misleading picture because the impact from current emissions will be felt after 2040. Models predict that the planet will warm at about the same rate through about 2050. From that point until the end of the century, however, the rate of warming differs significantly with an increase or decrease in carbon emissions.
The administration intends that the next National Climate Assessment, produced by an interagency task force about every four years since 2000, contain less-alarming predictions than the one issued this past year. The most recent report stated that if fossil fuel emissions continue unchecked, the earth’s atmosphere could warm by as much as eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century resulting in drastically higher sea levels, more devastating storms and droughts, crop failures, food losses and severe health consequences.
The next assessment, expected to be released in 2021 or 2022, is under way. Trump has directed that worst-case scenario projections will not automatically be included in the National Climate Assessment or in other scientific reports produced by the government.
“What we have here is a pretty blatant attempt to politicize the science — to push the science in a direction that’s consistent with their politics,” said Philip B. Duffy, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the government’s most recent National Climate Assessment. “It reminds me of the Soviet Union.”
As a result, parts of the federal government will no longer fulfill what scientists say is one of the most urgent jobs of climate science studies: reporting on the future effects of a rapidly warming planet and presenting a picture of what the earth could look like by the end of the century if humanity continues to emit heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels.
James Hewitt, a spokesman for the EPA, defended the proposed changes: “The previous use of inaccurate modeling that focuses on worst-case emissions scenarios, that does not reflect real-world conditions, needs to be thoroughly re-examined and tested if such information is going to serve as the scientific foundation of nationwide decision-making now and in the future,” Mr. Hewitt said.
To further question climate science, Trump has proposed a new climate review panel. That effort may be led by William Happer, a 79-year-old physicist who had a respected career at Princeton but is now known for attacking the science of man-made climate change and for defending the virtues of carbon dioxide.
“The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler,” said Mr. Happer, who serves on the National Security Council as the president’s deputy assistant for emerging technologies.
Mr. Happer’s proposed panel is backed by John R. Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, who brought Mr. Happer into the N.S.C.
Both Happer and Bolton are beneficiaries of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the far-right billionaire and his daughter who have funded efforts to debunk climate science. The Mercers are major contributors to a super PAC affiliated with Mr. Bolton before he entered government and to an advocacy group headed by Mr. Happer.
Trump has pushed to resurrect the idea of a series of military-style exercises, known as “red team, blue team” debates, on the validity of climate science first promoted by Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator who was forced to resign last year amid multiple scandals.
The idea was defeated by John F. Kelly, then the White House chief of staff. But Trump now envisions using Happer’s panel as a forum for it. Trump’s views may be influenced by donors like Carl Icahn, the New York investor who owns oil refineries, and the oil-and-gas billionaire Harold Hamm — both of whom pushed Trump to deregulate the energy industry.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to share Trump’s disregard for climate change. At a recent meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council, he described the rapidly warming region as a land of “opportunity and abundance” because of its untapped reserves of oil, gas, uranium, gold, fish and rare-earth minerals. The melting sea ice, he said, was opening new shipping routes which the US (and China and the Soviet Union) intend to exploint.
“That is one of the most crude messages one could deliver,” said R. Nicholas Burns, the NATO ambassador under George W. Bush.
At the National Security Council, under Mr. Bolton, officials said they had been directed to delete references to global warming from speeches and formal statements.
Scientists said that eliminating the worst-case scenario would give a falsely optimistic picture. “Nobody in the world does climate science like that,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton. “It would be like designing cars without seatbelts or airbags.”
Internationally, climate scientists have given up on the White House being anything but on outlier in policy. The loss of US leadership as a source for reliable climate research is profound.
“It is very unfortunate and potentially even quite damaging that the Trump administration behaves this way,” said Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “There is this arrogance and disrespect for scientific advancement — this very demoralizing lack of respect for your own experts and agencies.”
The views expressed here are my own.
Carl R. Howard
Co-chair, Global Climate Change Committee
Follow me on Twitter @Howard.Carl