National Geographic’s Extreme Weather September Issue Should Get You Talking


National Geographic September, 2012 Cover. The September, 2012 edition deals with extreme weather and its ties to climate change

This past week on my way home from my new job, I picked up the latest edition of National Geographic. Entitled on the front cover was “What’s Up With the Weather”. The front cover also had four bullet point examples of the extreme weather that has been going on lately include:

– Summer In March

– Record Floods

– Endless Droughts

– Snowmageddon

I was sold on the issue and bought it, figuring this would make for some good discussion material. After reading the article, I will admit, National Geographic lives up to its billing as the leader in environmental journalism. Written by Peter Miller, the piece starts about the massive two-day flash flood in Nashville, Tennessee in May, 2010.

A couple trapped in a flash flood in Nashville, May, 2010. Source: National Geographic- http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/09/extreme-weather/extreme-weather-photography#/05-struggling-tennessee-flash-flood-670.jpg

While it’s not unusual to have periods of heavy rain fall sometimes in Nashville due to hurricanes, this was not a hurricane that swooped over the city. In fact, it was a series of heavy thunderstorms that smacked around Music City for two days straight. An eyewitness account gives from the article gives further context to an event that not even a science fiction writer would have written for a late 1980’s movie:

This was a new kind of storm for Nashville. “It came down harder than I’ve ever seen it rain here,” says Brad Paisley, the country singer, who owns a farm outside town. “You know how when you’re in a mall and it’s coming down in sheets, and you think, I’ll give it five minutes, and when it lets up I’ll run to my car? Well, imagine that it didn’t let up until the next day.”

Over at NewsChannel 5, the local CBS station, meteorologist Charlie Neese could see where the weather was coming from. The jet stream had gotten stuck over the city, and one thunderstorm after another was sucking up warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico, rumbling hundreds of miles northeast, and dumping the water on Nashville. While Neese and his colleagues were broadcasting from a second-floor studio, the first-floor newsroom was being swamped by backed-up sewers. “Water was shooting up through the toilets,” Neese says.

The Cumberland River, which winds through the heart of Nashville, started rising Saturday morning. At Ingram Barge Company, David Edgin, a former towboat captain, had more than seven boats and 70 barges out on the waterway. As the rain continued to pound down, he called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get its forecast of how high the river would rise. “It’s blowing up our models,” the duty officer said. “We’ve never seen anything like this.” Edgin ordered all of Ingram’s boats to tie up at safe locations along the riverbank. It turned out to be a smart move.

By Saturday night the Cumberland had risen at least 15 feet, to 35 feet, and the corps was predicting it would crest at 42. But the rain didn’t stop Sunday, and the river didn’t crest until Monday—at 52 feet, 12 feet above flood stage. Spilling into downtown streets, the flood caused some two billion dollars in damage.

When the sun came out on Monday morning, parts of Nashville had seen more than 13 inches of rain—about twice the previous record of 6.6 inches set during Hurricane Frederic in 1979. Pete Fisher, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, needed a canoe to get into the famous theater, which is on the riverfront northeast of the city. He and audio engineer Tommy Hensley paddled across a parking lot and through a side door. “We basically just floated into the theater,” Fisher says. “It was pitch black, and we shined a light on the stage. If you’d been sitting in the front row, you’d have had seven feet of water over your head.”

In warehouses along the river, the flood had submerged millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, including components for a 36-by-60-foot video screen that had been assembled for Brad Paisley’s upcoming concert tour, which was set to begin in less than three weeks. “Every amp, every guitar I’m used to, was destroyed,” Paisley says. “I felt powerless in a way I’ve never felt before with weather.”

The experience changed him. “Here in Nashville our weather is manageable, normally,” he says. “But since that flood, I’ve never once taken normalcy for granted.”

After using Nashville as it’s first victim in the autopsy of weird and wonky weather, Miller goes right into discussing the droughts of Texas. Miller noted that Texas saw it’s driest period since record keeping began in 1895, between October, 2010 to September, 2011.

While the article points to the El Nino/La Nina patterns effecting the weather, Miller takes target at another culprit… climate change and global warming. Miller clearly uses the phrase brilliantly “weather on steroids,” referring to how increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has amplified the strange weather events across the globe. For example, Miller gives clearly gives some excellent diagnosis below:

In the case of some weather extremes, though, the connection is pretty clear. The warmer the atmosphere, the more potential for record-breaking heat waves. In the U.S. high-temperature records are being set these days twice as often as low-temperature ones; around the world 19 countries set national records in 2010.

As moisture in the atmosphere has increased, rainfall has intensified. The amount of rain falling in intense downpours—the heaviest one percent of rain events—has increased by nearly 20 percent during the past century in the U.S. “You’re getting more rain from a given storm now than you would have 30 or 40 years ago,” says Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Global warming, he says, has changed the odds for extreme weather.

“Picture a baseball player on steroids,” Meehl goes on. “This baseball player steps up to the plate and hits a home run. It’s impossible to say if he hit that home run because of the steroids, or whether he would have hit it anyway. The drugs just made it more likely.”

It’s the same with the weather, Meehl says. Greenhouse gases are the steroids of the climate system. “By adding just a little bit more carbon dioxide to the climate, it makes things a little bit warmer and shifts the odds toward these more extreme events,” he says. “What was once a rare event will become less rare.”

This National Geographic piece is not necessarily a wake up call, but definitely a good coffee shop discussion on what the impact more extreme weather will bring to our world. If you do not have time to read this article, then here is a recent PBS interview with Miller.

Whether it’s in Pakistan, Russia, India, the United States, or even in our back yard, you are going to see more of them with a changing climate. Yes, you might say, Adam, well, wouldn’t be great to have warmer winters. Wouldn’t be great not to freeze in -40C weather?

Ok, sure that might be fine and dandy, but here are some questions you need to ask yourself:

Are we ready for the potential of a flash flood in late February or March in Winnipeg? While the chances of this are low that a flash flood may occur, its more likely that winter in Winnipeg will see more freezing rain and rainfall events, according to Danny Blair, professor of Geography at the University of Winnipeg. What if all of a sudden a downpour or freezing rain storm happened in Winnipeg? The results would not be good, if flash flooding did occur, or rapid freezing. It would cause major headaches to city planners, and the province. Does Winnipeg have the infrastructure to deal with these types of challenges this century?

Warmer winter, less snow means more rapid evaporation, likely: Less snow, means, less moisture in the ground, meaning more evaporation, and increased risk of drought. That is not good for farmers and their crops in the long-term as increased uncertainty would cause risk in the global food supply system.

The C$1.6 Billion Question: Weather related disasters cost Canadian insurance brokers C$1.6 billion in 2011. No wonder why the insurance industry is scared like a little baby of a changing climate. Can the insurance industry handle any more? Premiums will likely rise as insurers are not going to bare the cost of this by themselves in the future.

These are the questions and discussion points we need to address sooner than later. It’s not just about melting ice caps, polar bears and wearing shorts in January in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada. We need to raise the concern of infrastructure, global food costs and financial costs to the global economy thanks to climate change.

What do you people think?

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