In this country, scientists have been historically averse to link weather disasters -- such as flooding caused by huge storms -- to climate change.
The scientific cliche is well-known: No single meteorological event can be caused by climate change.
A leading theorist of climate communications, Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego argues that the general public is desperate for leadership on the subject of climate change, and that by always qualifying away the linkage between climate and meteorology, scientists are undermining their own authority.
In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last year after Typhoon Haiyan, she wrote:
When we emphasize the uncertainty, we appear to justify a course of no action on climate.
Instead, we might focus on the reality of the threat that warming poses, even though we can't say with any certainty that it caused the particular case in front of us. We might focus on the fact that we expect warming to cause exactly this type of extremely intense typhoon to occur more often — as well as a range of other harmful and irreversible consequences, some of them quite certain.
Well, In the UK this year, after the worst flooding in 248 years, Dame Julia Sligo -- the chief scientist of the Met Office -- did exactly what Oreskes counseled,and bluntly warned that climate change means more such disasters to come, and unapologetically linked climate change to the flooding.
Climate change is almost certainly to blame for the severe weather that has caused chaos across Britain in recent weeks, the Met Office's chief scientist has said.
Dame Julia Slingo said there was not yet "definitive proof" but that "all the evidence" pointed to a role for the phenomenon.
Climate change is almost certainly to blame for the severe weather that has caused chaos across Britain in recent weeks, the Met Office's chief scientist has said [to Rupert Murdoch's SkyNews network].
Dame Julia said the southerly track of the storms had been something of surprise.
She said: "They have been slamming into the southern part of Britain. We also know that the subtropical, tropical Atlantic is now quite a lot warmer than it was 50 years ago.
"The air that enters this storm system comes from that part of the Atlantic where it is obviously going to be warmer and carrying more moisture.
"This is just basic physics.'"
To an audience at the American Geophysical Union a couple of years ago, Dame Sligo said that her office was working on ways to forecast extreme events. Be interesting to find out if that system worked for the UK this year.
Here's a picture of one creature that might actually enjoy flooding -- in Worcester last week, from the Daily Mail.
The past is never dead. The past is not even past.
When William Faulkner wrote that, he was thinking of human history, but it's true on here on planet earth as well. Cycles repeat. For that reason, and because they were troubled by the drought they saw in the deep time record, paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram and a fellow researcher at UC Berkeley set out to present the full record of climate extremes in the Southwest to the public in a new book, The West Without Water.
How extreme is this year in California's climate history? To answer this, we need to look back further than the 119 years we have on record, to the geologic past. Based on the growth rings of trees cored throughout the Western United States, AD 1580 stands out as the driest year in the last half a millennium, drier than 1976-77. It was so devastatingly dry in 1580 that the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada essentially failed to grow at all; the cores show either extremely thin or absent tree rings. If the current drought continues in California through Oct. 1, this water year will be the driest not only in our modern records but in half a millennium.
But that's actually a little bit reassuring, because it implies that this sort of drought, when eventually it is over, at least will not return soon. For perhaps as long as 500 years.
But what if it doesn't quit?
In an interview, Ingram gets even scarier:
If you look at the archaeological record, you see that the Native American population in the West expanded in the wet years that preceded those long droughts in the Medieval period. Then during the droughts, they were pretty much wiped out. There was the so-called Anasazi collapse in the Southwest about 800 years ago. In some ways, I see that as an analogy to us today. We’ve had this wetter 150 years and we’ve expanded. Now we’re using up all the available water, yet our population is still growing.
We’re vulnerable just like they were, but on an even larger scale.
[Image of groundwater levels in Central Valley from GRACE, NASA's gravity-measurement satellite. Red line shows groundwater levels from l962 based on USGS measurements -- green line shows satellite measurements since 2003]
Here's a story on the front page of the Ventura County Star about the "high hazard" the city and the region face from a network of earthquake faults.
My editor at the paper gave me a go-ahead to attend a scientific conference last month, and added a pretty wonderful graphic, and made this story free to the public on line for at least a day, all of which show it matters to the paper and all are facts for which I'm grateful.
But I hope this story doesn't get a whole lot bigger.
VENTURA EARTHQUAKE FAULT MORE DANGEROUS THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT, GEOLOGISTS SAY
Several new studies funded by the Southern California Earthquake Center have identified Ventura as a hot spot for geological activity, with a fault running directly under downtown potentially far more dangerous than previously believed.
If the fault ruptures along its length and involves other faults, it could cause a major earthquake and massive damage, with the possibility of a strong local tsunami, researchers say. The Ventura research was presented at an American Geophysical Union conference last month in San Francisco.
“We have a multiplicity of concerns about Ventura,” said Thomas Jordan, who directs the USC-based center.
“The Ventura fault that runs right through downtown is a very active structure, and Ventura County is an area with many big thrust faults, including San Cayetano, Red Mountain and Pitas Point.
“If you have a 7.3 out in the desert where there’s nothing but a small Marine base, it’s no big deal. But if you put a magnitude 6.3 in the middle of a city, there’s hell to pay, and the fault in downtown Ventura is capable of a lot more than that.”
Using holes drilled about 75 feet deep in a corner of the Ventura College campus, as well as sounding methods at various sites along Day Road in Ventura, researchers found evidence in the layers of stratification of a large earthquake 770 to 1,020 years ago.
The earthquake made a scarp — a fold in the Earth like a fold in a rug. Over hundreds of years, deposits from floods covered and smoothed it out. Today, it’s a gentle slope more or less along Poli Street and Foothill Road, not far from the base of the hills overlooking Ventura.
[a pic of the slope from the paper]
Note: Researcher Judith Hubbard, who graduated from Harvard in 2012, gave me a couple of charts that illustrate literally at a deeper level what is going on, and encouraged me to use them, so here are two profiles that show how deep the Ventura fault was thought to be in 1982 and how deep we think it goes today.
You can barely see a crack in the top graph: in the bottom it links with a whole floor of faults.
To continue with the story:
The earthquake made a scarp — a fold in the Earth like a fold in a rug. Over hundreds of years, deposits from floods covered and smoothed it out. Today, it’s a gentle slope more or less along Poli Street and Foothill Road, not far from the base of the hills overlooking Ventura.
The earthquake that made this slope was anything but gentle, found researchers James Dolan, a USC professor of geology, and Lee Mcauliffe, a graduate student working with Dolan.
“You’re talking about moving a whole chunk of the Earth’s crust in a few seconds,” Dolan said. “We’re talking 6 meters of uplift and 10 meters of displacement. That’s very, very energetic. You simply don’t see that in earthquakes of less than 7.5” magnitude.
Craig Nicholson, a geophysicist at UC Santa Barbara, pointed out that the 1994 Northridge quake was 6.7 in magnitude. A 7.5 would be about 30 times as strong as the Northridge quake, which caused about $40 billion in damage, according to Nicholson.
EXAMINING DATA, HISTORY
Dolan cited new studies by Judith Hubbard, a structural geologist now at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Tom Rockwell, a geology professor at San Diego State University. Hubbard used oil industry data to help find and profile the Ventura fault. Rockwell used old photos to identify uplifted plateaus along the coast north of the city.
Both have deepened geologists’ understanding of the Ventura fault system.
“Previously, there had been some debate as to whether the Ventura fault was capable of generating large earthquakes or whether it was a surface feature and not much of a factor,” Dolan said. “What this study and other studies ... are showing is that these are large displacement events. That means many meters of slip, which indicates that this fault is capable of an earthquake well in excess of a 7” magnitude.
Hubbard spent four months analyzing seismic profiles of the Ventura region provided by the oil industry. The profiles, based on sound waves sent miles below the surface by explosions, provide records of stratification in rock.
Scientists believe that the longer and deeper a fault runs, the more risk it poses. Previous study of the Ventura fault estimated it extended about 1,000 feet below the surface. Hubbard’s results show it extends at least 7,500 feet below.
This means it likely connects to numerous other faults in the region, extending north toward Santa Barbara along the Red Mountain fault, out to sea along the Pitas Point fault, eastward along the San Cayetano fault and southward along the Lion fault.
Note: Hubbard stressed that maps that show faults at the surface, which don't appear to connect, are misleading in the Ventura basin, because we don't see what's happening below. Here's a graph of hers that uses oil rigs to give a sense of the Ventura fault's depth.
Sorry! Perhaps the edtor was right. Back to the story:
Hubbard's study estimated that terraces along Highway 101 north of Ventura, which thousands of years ago were beneath the sea, were raised by 16 to 32 feet per earthquake.
“This much uplift would require large earthquakes (magnitude 7.7 to 8.1) involving the entire Ventura/Pitas Point system, and possibly more structures such as the San Cayetano fault,” Hubbard wrote. “Due to the local geography and geology, such events would be associated with significant ground shaking amplification and strong regional tsunamis.”
‘HIGH HAZARD’ SEEN
Rockwell has documented four earthquakes along the Ventura/Pitas Point faults in the past 7,000 years, most recently about 1,000 years ago. Rockwell estimates earthquakes strike there every 400 to 2,800 years, but the long intervals are not entirely good news. It suggests a fault rupture will occur over a greater length and may involve more than one fault.
Ventura County has few large earthquakes in its historical record. A well-documented earthquake in 1812 damaged several missions along the Central Coast, including the San Buenaventura Mission. A second earthquake later that year caused a tsunami that struck Goleta, Santa Barbara and Ventura, according to historical records compiled in the late 1970s by the California Division of Mines and Geology.
Using sonar and seismic instrumentation, Rockwell has been working with graduate student Gulsen Ucarkus, a researcher at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, on an undersea survey of the Ventura-Pitas Point fault system as it moves offshore. He also is working with Steve Ward, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, on this fault’s potential to cause tsunamis. Also in the works is a model of the potential for ground shaking.
“If you look at the national hazard maps ... you will see an extremely high hazard in the Ventura basin,” Lucile Jones, a nationally recognized seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said at last month’s conference. “It’s a confluence of faults that are moving very rapidly, and there’s probably a lot of buried faults that we can’t see, too, in such a fast-deforming basin.
“You’re one of the hot spots in California.”
And here's a link to the paper's excellent interactive graphic -- with comments apparently from Lucy Jones, independent of my reporting -- which the paper kindly encouraged sharing.
What is causing the drought in the West? Could it be a jetstream phenomenon connected to the cold winter being experienced back East? Which could be connected to blockages interrupting the polar vortex, causing it to spill southward into places like the Ohio Valley? And could those blockages be connected -- as researchers such as Jen Francis contend -- to global warming?
In other words -- could global warming be bringing us dryness here in California?
The possibility could be a big story, with -- as they say in the journalism trade -- lots of moving parts.
Many studies have suggested the possibility that global warming could intensity drought in the West, but some of the leading modelers have tried to replicate the causal mechanism without success statistically, resulting in a genuine controversy in the field. In turn, the modelers have been sharply criticized for ignoring crucial factors such as soil mositure, by the likes of Kevin Trenberth, as discussed by Joe Romm in a ClimateProgress report.
Not all climate science is settled to the nth degree. As long as reputable scientists are presenting research disputing the global warming/Western drought connection, the truth of the charge is unproven.
Still, it's hard to avoid the possibility, especially in the High Sierra.
Let me offer an example:
On the shoreline at Lake Tahoe, where snow should be piled high by now, Valerie Chown and her family this week stumbled across a most unusual winter phenomenon.
There, on the beach, was a nude sunbather.
"It was crazy," said Chown, 59, of Los Altos Hills, about the encounter at Secret Cove, where a few too many secrets were revealed, at least for this time of year.
Only in California. That's from Peter Fimrite of the San Francisco Chronice.
The signs aren’t good when the chief of California’s snow survey has to walk over bare ground to take a snowpack measurement in the Sierra Nevada, as Frank Gehrke did Friday near Echo Summit.
Manual and electronic readings up and down the range placed the statewide snowpack at 20% of normal for this date, adding to worries that 2014 could be a bad drought year.
The meager snowpack was not a surprise. Last year was California’s driest in 119 years of records, according to the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.
This story includes a picture, though it's not much fun. All the officials are looking down:
Meanwhile, as Climate Central reports, the center of the country is being hit hard by an outbreak of the polar vortex, depicted here in a model for January 6 by WeatherBELL Analytics:
Or, more precisely, in the words of Climate Central:
The cause of the Arctic outbreak can be traced to northeastern Canada and Greenland, where an area of high pressure and relatively mild temperatures is set to block the eastward progression of weather systems, like an offensive lineman protecting the quarterback from the other team.
The atmospheric blocking is forcing a section of the polar vortex to break off and move south, into the U.S. The polar vortex is an area of cold low pressure that typically circulates around the Arctic during the winter, spreading tentacles of cold southward into Europe, Asia, and North America at times. Except this time, it’s not a small section of the vortex, but what one forecaster, Ryan Maue of WeatherBELL Analytics, called “more like the whole enchilada” in a Twitter conversation on Thursday.
How cold will it get? Computer model forecasts project low temperatures on Monday night in Washington to drop to near zero, and below zero in Boston and possibly New York City as well. Dayton, Ohio, is likely to see lows from 10-20°F below zero, and parts of Iowa could see temperatures into the minus 30s°F.
This raises the inevitable connection: Is there a Western onnection?
According to Fish Out of Water, for KOS, the answer is...yes:
This image shows that the lower half of the atmosphere above the northeastern Pacific was much warmer and thicker than normal in 2013, blocking jet stream flow that would bring storms to California.
The jet stream tracked far north of normal in 2013, leaving the west coast of the U.S. in drought. A dome of warmer than normal air and higher than normal pressure pushed west coast storms towards Alaska.
But is this atmospheric high pressure system the cause of California's drought, or a consequence of an oceanic pattern?
An alternative view puts responsibility at the feet of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, better known as the PDO. As Bill Patzert told the LA Times:
In the cycle's negative phase, the surface waters of the western Pacific warm while the eastern Pacific cools, rather like a big La Niña that pushes the jet stream and the storms it carries to the north of California.
The reverse ocean temperature pattern prevails when the oscillation is in the positive phase, producing wetter, El Niño-like conditions.
For more than a decade, the oscillation has tended toward the negative. "Since 1997-98 more or less, we've been in a dry pattern" in the West, Patzert said.
A glance at the weather service records backs that up. Of the 10 driest years recorded in downtown L.A., two — 2013 and 2007 — have occurred in the last decade.
Which is to say -- natural variability. And the KOS blogger does admit the possibility, and fall into speculation in the conclusion to his post:
I suspect the weakening of the thermohaline circulation around Antarctica resulting from the freshening of the waters is driving an acceleration in the trade winds and the ocean currents. About 20% less water is sinking around Antarctica, so the thermal gradient is increasing around Antarctica. This is paradoxically increasing Antarctic winter sea ice while the global oceans warm up faster than expected.
And he adds:
Of course, there are natural cycles and there's always natural variability.
To which one can only say: Of course.
Frankly, at this point, we can only hope for an outbreak of natural variability -- anything to vary the pattern from dryness.
Went to Death Valley after Christmas and was struck by the fact that it seemed only slightly drier than the rest of Southern California. Which usually by now has had more than an inch or so of rain, when absolutely none is foreseen for this month:
Back in l988, physicist/climatologist James Hansen told Congress that that we had begun to change the earth's atmosphere. This was during a heat wave in Washington, and his testimony made headlines. That's rare for a scientist of any sort.
"It's time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here," [Hansen] told a Senate panel. He added that it was "99 per cent certain" that the warming trend was not a case of natural variation.
''Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming. It is already happening now.''.
Since then the Kyoto Protocol -- an international pact that grew out of a UN effort to begin a global conversation about climate change -- has come and gone. The goal at that time was "stablization of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the cimate system."
We have not yet succeeded in avoiding this oncoming disaster, and Hansen's views are not unique among scientists. A poll conducted by Naomi Orestes of UC San Diego found a 97% consensus of climatologists on the basic facts of global warming, and the fundamental idea that heating the atmosphere and the oceans poses serious risks to our civilization. .
Yet no matter how many times Hansen states the scientific argument, American culture continues to shrug off his warnings, and silence him when he speaks out.
This month he revealed he and a formidable group of collaborators cannot publish a study warning of the consequences of inaction on climate in the in the most estemmed of public science journals, PNAS [an outlet associated with the National Academy of Sciences].
Hansen gave the keynote speech to a crowd of of perhaps 2500 scientists at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco. The speech ranged from the potential extinction of the Monarch butterfly to the threat to coastal cities around thew world, and included numerous attempts to puncture our shield of denial. At one point Hansen pointed out that energy departments at the state and federal level publish graphs showing fossil fuel extraction skyrocketing, and emissions too, indefinitely, "as if that had to happen."
"Isn't there such a thing as free will?" he said. "It's still possible for us to get on another path, but not if we don't try to do it."
Hansen went on to recount his struggles with the PNAS, which unlike most science publications makes its papers freely available to the public He mentioned that the paper that he and his esteemed colleagues, eventually published elsewhere was repeatedly slapped down for "normative" language.
For, in other words, for suggesting that we should act to defuse the threat of global warming.
"It tooks us three years to publish this paper, and part of the reason was that we submitted it to PNAS, And although it got the highest ratings by the referees, the editor gave it to the editorial board, and they insisted that we remove "normative statements" from the paper."
Hansen smiled, but not happily.
"Which is a little strange. It seems to me that pointing out the implictions of science should not be prohibited," Hansen said, in his dry, matter of fact, Midwestern voice. "It got to the point with one anonymous board member reviewer that even the word "dangerous" was considered "normative."
He laughed -- exasperated. And showed us a telling graph.
He ponted out that instead of trying to reduce carbon extraction and output, politicians from both parties were "falling all over themselves" to take credit for more fossil fuel extraction, which would only add to the peril. His frustration was evident, and he appeared weary. The ambitious speech seemed to go over the heads of the crowd at times, and he suggested at the conclusion that just as he was struggling to communicate the crisis, we were struggling too, to understand it.
Here's perhaps the simplest form of this plea for action on global warming:
Dana Goodyear, the editor/poet/reporter (for The New Yorker) has focused in the last couple of years on the weird edges of foodie culture of today. At least from a traditonalist's perspective, the foodie culure of today has evolved from deliciousness, to hipness, to eating what others haven't -- and decadence.
Anything that Moves is an intensely, alarmingly sensual book, but it's thoughtful as well.
In an NPR interview, Goodyear wondered:
"What does it mean that the richest people in the world are starting to eat like the survivors of a catastrophe?"
Meaning not just odd foods from traditional European cultures, such as snails and squid ink, but insects, fallopian tubes from frogs, everything up to and including bat wings and newt eyes.
Example of decadence? Goodyear mentions the annual Head to Tail at a San Francisco restaurant called Incanto, which features an appetizer of "whipped calves brains on toast, and entrees that include shaved tripe salad, pig's brain prosciutto, and lamb heart. The final savory course before dessert would be braised pig head with grilled liver and large intestine."
[The Butcher Shop, by Joachin Beuckalaer, 1568]
Jason Epstein in this month's New York Review of Books focuses on what drives this desire to consume. He quotes Goodyear:
I see anxiety behind the hedonism...After centuries of perfecting the ritual of "civilized" dining, there is a curious backpedaling, a wilding...a post-apocalyptic free-for-all of crudity and refinement, technology and artlessness, an unimaginable future and a forgotten past.
For an example of the anxiety, the craziness, see this great story of hers about an underground moveable kitchen called Wolvesmouth. You have to read it to believe it.
It's disturbing, frankly, but like the on-coming car crash, you can't take your eyes off it.
From above, the food—smeared, brushed, and spattered with sauces in safety orange, violet, yolk yellow, acid green—is as vivid as a Kandinsky; from the table’s edge, it forms eerie landscapes of hand-torn meat, loamy crumbles, and strewn blossoms. Being presented with a plate of Thornton’s food often feels like stumbling upon a crime scene while running through the woods.
If Goodyear is right, we are expressing our guilt about the apocalypse in a desire to eat -- everything.
For example, from today, via Jeff Masters:
A dangerous day in Chicago
Most of Illinois, including Chicago, has been placed under a special "PDS" Tornado Watch: a "Particularly Dangerous Situation." Severe thunderstorms spawning tornado warnings have already erupted over Southern Wisconsin and Western Illinois as of 10:15 am CST. Severe thunderstorms are likely to sweep through Chicago in the early afternoon during today's Ravens - Bears game, which starts at noon CST. According to NBC 5 in Chicago, loose objects are being removed from the stadium in anticipation of high winds, and officials are prepared to evacuate fans, if necessary.
PDS watches are issued, when in the opinion of the forecaster, the likelihood of significant events is boosted by very volatile atmospheric conditions. Usually this decision is based on a number of atmospheric clues and parameters, so the decision to issue a PDS watch is subjective. There is no hard threshold or criteria. In high risk outlooks PDS watches are issued most often.
Could use of this word serve as a metric for the extreme weather of this century?
Regardless, here's such a story from the NY Times today, which is a lot tougher to take than a new word:
Severe storms moved through the Midwest on Sunday, leveling towns, killing at least five people in Illinois and injuring dozens more, and causing thousands of power failures across the region.
Officials warned of a fast-moving, deadly storm system on Sunday morning and issued tornado watches throughout the day for wide areas of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. By the time the storm had passed on Sunday evening, tornadoes — scores of them, according to the National Weather Service — had left paths of destruction.
Kinda reminds me of another set of post-storm pictures recently.
For the past few weeks, the LA Times has led in its big Sunday editions with stories revealing how the city of Los Angeles and the state of California have turned a blind eye to seismic risk, despite many urgents warnings from scientists.
After the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, California began an ambitious effort to map faults across the state.
Over the next two decades, officials published 534 maps of active earthquake faults. New construction was prohibited on top of these fissures because previous quakes showed that buildings could be torn apart during violent shaking.
But the mapping campaign has slowed to a crawl — with many dangerous faults still undocumented.
For the same paper, Ted Rall tells the same story -- entertainingly.
In my experience, the more you read about seismic risk in CA, the more you are likely to freak out.
As they say in songs, it went something like this:
As a form of disposable entertainment, the apocalypse market is booming. The question is why. The obvious answer is that these narratives tap into anxieties, conscious and otherwise, about the damage we’re doing to our species and to the planet. They allow us to safely fantasize about what might be required of us to survive.
Of course, people have been running around screaming about the end of the world for as long as we’ve been around to take notes. But in the past, the purpose of these stories was essentially prophetic. They were intended to bring man into accord with the will of God, or at least his own conscience.
The newest wave of apocalyptic visions, whether they’re intended to make us laugh or shriek, are nearly all driven by acts of sadistic violence. Rather than inspiring audiences to reckon with the sources of our potential planetary ruin, they proceed from the notion that the apocalypse will usher in an era of sanctified Darwinism: survival of the most weaponized.
There’s a deep cynicism at work here, one that stands in stark contrast to the voices of even a generation ago. And this cynicism has, I fear, become the default setting of a culture that lurches about within the shadow of its own extinction yet lacks the moral imagination to change its destiny.
Another word for that deep cynicism was coined by an underground rocker, quoted in a spiky art/writing/museum/collective/Internet thing called The Dread Exhibition. (Translation: Don't ask me to crush it into a sentence -- you'll have to look it up yourself if you want the whole story.)
Here's the point:
Dread, that visceral sensation which can be used both to comment on and revel in the anxieties of our time...is best understood as an aesethiszed experience of fear,or, as sci-fi author China Miéville defined it in conversation with the DJ and curator Juha van ‘t Zelfde, “dark awe,” a grim negative to the sublime.
Think of Caspar David Friedrich, who could make even postcard-type pictures darkly ominous:
Until we understand this allure, this dark awe, we won't be able to overcome it.