29 July 2011

26 July 2011


Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011. Credit: NOAA
The National Climatic Data Center's (NCDC) latest Billion Dollar Disaster Report finds the US has racked up more mega-expensive natural disasters in 2011 than ever before.

So far we've suffered more than five times the huge disasters typical at this time of year. Already damage costs have reached nearly $32 billion.

Compare that to the first half of the average year—prior to the onset of "big" hurricane season—between 1980 and 2010, where disaster costs typically run $6 billion.

Billion-dollar-plus natural disasters between 1980 and 2010, 
using a GNP inflation index.

All told the US has suffered 99 weather-related disasters over the past 31 years, where overall damages and economic costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. 

The normalized losses (that is, the numbers adjusted for the GNP inflation index) add up to more than $725 billion for those 99 disasters

So far, nine billion-dollar disasters have befallen the US this year. Here's the NCDC list:

  • Groundhog Day Blizzard Jan 29-Feb 3. Insured losses were greater than $1.1 billion. Total losses (insurance, state and local snow removal, business interruption) were greater than $3.9 billion. Thirty-six deaths.

A picture of the EF3 tornado that struck Tushka, Oklahoma, 14 April 2011. Credit: Gabe Garfield and Marc Austin via NOAA.

  • Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes April 4-5. An estimated 46 tornadoes caused more than $1.4 billion insured losses, total losses greater than $2 billion, 9 deaths. 
  • Southeast/Midwest Tornadoes April 8-11. An estimated 59 tornadoes caused more than $1.5 billion insured losses, total losses greater than $2.2 billion, numerous injuries, no known deaths. 
  • Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes April 14-16. An estimated 160 tornadoes caused more than $1.7 billion insured losses, total losses greater than $2 billion, 38 deaths. 
  • Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest Tornadoes April 25-30. An estimated 305 tornadoes caused somewhere between $3.7 to $5.5 billion (the numbers are still being accounted), total losses approaching $10 billion, 320 deaths. 
  • Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes May 22-27. An estimated 180 tornadoes caused between $4 and $7 billion insured losses (the numbers are still being accounted), total losses may exceed $7.0 billion, 172 deaths—including the EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin, MO, killing 141, the deadliest single tornado in the US since record-keeping began.

Wildfires in Texas as of 30 April 2011. At this point more than two million acres/809,371 hectares had already burned. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image created by Jesse Allen.

  • Texas Drought and Wildfires, Spring-Summer 2011: drought and wildfires across Texas, New Mexico, and western Oklahoma racked up fighting/suppression costs of about $1 million a day. Total losses to agriculture and cattle were estimated between $1.5 and $3 billion, as of 16 June. Expenses are likely to rise as the drought continues.
This map depicts rainfall for the Midwest from April 19 to 25, when totals ranged from 150 millimeters/5.9 inches to greater than 525 millimeters/20.7 inches, prompting major flooding. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Jesse Allen.

  • Mississippi River flooding Spring-Summer 2011 Estimated economic loss ranges from $2 to 4 billion. Below are more detailed preliminary stats—the floods are still unfolding—as of 16 June:
  1. $500 million loss to agriculture in Arkansas 
  2. $320 million in damage to Memphis, Tennessee
  3. $800 million loss to agriculture in Mississippi
  4. $317 million loss to agriculture and property in Missouri's Birds Point-New Madrid Spillway 
  5. $80 million loss for the first 30 days of flood-fighting efforts in Louisiana

The Missouri River floods have not made it onto this list, since their onset was near the end of the compilation period.

The technical report,  A Climatology of 1980-2003 Extreme Weather and Climate Events, by Tom Ross and Neal Lott, is illuminating. Here are some highlights (bold emphasis is mine):

  • In twenty of the past twenty-four years, the U.S. has experienced at least one weather-related billion-dollar disaster.  
  • The only years without at least one billion-dollar disaster were 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1987. 
  • Since 1988, at least one disaster occurred each year, with only one such event in 1988 and 1990, and seven billion-dollar events in 1998. Two of the 1998 disasters were caused by hurricanes. 
  • Overall, hurricanes and tropical storms account for 16 of the 58 events and 28% of the monetary losses (normalized to 2002).  
  • The ten major droughts/heatwaves which have occurred since 1980 account for the largest percentage (42%) of weather-related monetary losses

The technical report concludes:

Although some studies suggest that trends such as population increases, population shifts into higher risk areas, and increasing wealth have been the key factors in weather related disasters (as opposed to historical trends in the frequency or strength of such events), there is evidence that climate change may affect the frequency of certain extreme weather events. An increase in population and development in flood plains, along with an increase in heavy rain events in the U.S. during the past fifty years, have gradually increased the economic losses due to flooding. If the climate continues to warm, the increase in heavy rain events is likely to continue. While trends in extratropical cyclones are not clear, there are projections that the incidence of extreme droughts will increase if the climate warms throughout the 21st century.

Credit: the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center

If you're wondering what disasters might be delivered in the next quarter, check out the maps and the legend, above, for forecasts of temperature and precipitation anomalies through the end of October 2011. Hurricanes not included.

23 July 2011


Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers, India and Bangladesh
Amazon River, Brazil
Yukon River, Alaska
Lena River, Russia
Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Rivers, the Netherlands
Irrawaddy River, Burma
Mackenzie River, Canada
Saskatchewan River, Canada
Niger River, Mali
Nile River, by night, Egypt

All satellite eye candy courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

21 July 2011


Aquadettes from California is a place. on Vimeo.

Beautiful courage. Water heals. Weed helps too.


Available at Amazon and through your local bookstore.

Want a signed copy? I'll be setting that up through PayPal for all my books. Stay tuned.

20 July 2011


There's an interesting paper just out in PLoS ONE assessing whether or not the memories of old fishers could be useful to science. Specifically, whether their recollections correlate with other fisheries data from recent decades.

The authors write:

Population declines and the extinction of marine organisms may be largely underestimated due to the difficulties involved in making scientific observations. However, data sources other than scientific time-series have proven useful in providing relevant information to marine scientists in cases that are normally considered "data-poor." Some studies have used traditional (or local) ecological knowledge to reconstruct temporal population trends and discover near-extinctions of marine fauna, while studies that compare the results from scientific research with evidence based on fishers' experience have shown that both sources of knowledge give similar results and can be used to detect the essential trends.

(Photo above by Steve Evans via Wikimedia Commons.)

(Monk seal. Via.)

To investigate, the researchers delved into the memories of 106 retired trawl fishers in Italy, Spain and Greece, seeking their impressions of the abundance of long-lived marine species—dolphins, whales, monk seals, marine turtles, and sharks—in the Mediterranean.

During the interviews, the old dudes (pretty sure they were all dudes) were asked to rank abundance of these animals group during three 20-year periods between 1940 and 1999.
Their perceptions were based on two indicators:

  • Frequency of sightings
  • Frequency of catches (incidental or intentional) 


    Specifically, they were asked about:

    • Intentional catches of dolphins 
    • Intentional catches of turtles
    • Sightings of dolphins, whales, seals, or turtles
    • Relative catches of sharks/cartilaginous fishes

    Their answers could be: "never," "occasional," "frequent," or "very frequent."

    (Trends in catches and sightings of large marine fauna, all areas combined. Credit: Francesc Maynou, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0021818.t001. Larger view here.)

    The results were interesting. And sad.

    • The frequency of encounters between large marine fauna and fishers declined throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
    • The decline continues at the beginning of the 21st century (except in Greece, where some dolphins are experiencing population increases).  
    • The commercial catches of sharks and other cartilaginous fishes decreased significantly.  

    The authors note that the abundance of monk seal and whales was already so low in the 20th century that the interview data were insufficient for a quantitative analysis.
    (Angelshark. Photo by Philippe Guillaume via Wikimedia Commons.)

    Here's what the fishers' memories revealed about recent extinctions:

    [S]moothhounds Mustelus mustelus [a kind of shark] are likely to have disappeared in the Catalan Sea before 1979, and angelsharks Squatina squatina before 1959. In western Italy, angelsharks would have disappeared by the early 1980s near the mainland and the mid-1980s in Sardinia. Smoothhounds became functionally extinct in 1990 in Italy and Greece, with only sporadic records thereafter. The sturgeon Acipenser acipenser had become extinct in the North Adriatic by 1966.

    (Photo by catrien via Flickr.)

    Bottom line is that fishers are good observers and a largely untapped treasure trove of fish tales about the health of marine ecosystems.

    If we accept that commercial trawl fishers are independent observers of the marine system, [our] results suggest that the abundance of large marine fauna has decreased considerably during the 20th century in the Mediterranean Sea (in agreement with the results of other studies), and therefore fishers' observations during a lifetime of professional activity can provide a qualitative measure of this decline.

    (Photo via.)

    Fish tails welcome too.


    Maynou, F., Sbrana, M., Sartor, P., Maravelias, C., Kavadas, S., Damalas, D., Cartes, J., & Osio, G. (2011). Estimating Trends of Population Decline in Long-Lived Marine Species in the Mediterranean Sea Based on Fishers' Perceptions PLoS ONE, 6 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021818

    19 July 2011


    (Smoke from the Wallow Fire as seen in Albuquerque. Credit: John Fowler via Wikimedia Commons.)

    We're seeing records fall in all directions this year—wettest, driest, warmest, coldest, snowiest, stormiest, fieryist—across the globe. 

    In the US alone, in the month of July alone, 1,079 total heat records have been broken or tied. That's 559 broken, 520 tied... so far.

    (Credit: NOAA.)

    The map above, generated at NOAA's US Records page, shows how records have fallen nationwide, including in Alaska and Hawaii.
    In fact every state except Delaware has broken heat records so far this month.

    In Iowa yesterday the heat index exceeded 130°F/54.4°C—an extremely rare occurrence in this part of the world. According to Jeff Masters, writing at his Wunderblog, the only place where a 130°F heat index is common is along the shores of the Red Sea in the Middle East.

    (Predicted heat index for Friday, 22 July, 2011. Credit: NOAA.)

    However, Delaware won't dodge the heat bullet much longer. Its own records will likely tumble hard later this week.

    The image above shows the predicted maximum heat index (combined heat and humidity) for Friday, 22 July 2011. 

    Parts of all but 3 states—Washington, Oregon, Idaho—are predicted to exceed 100°F/37.7°C.

    Delaware—in scary yellow—is predicted to rise above 115°F/46.1°C.

    Ricky Rood points out in his Weather Underground blog that much of July's heat in the US is compounded by extremely high humidity.

    And much of the extreme humidity this year is fueled by the extreme floods and saturated soils still plaguing the Midwest.

    (Missouri River basin. Top image acquired yesterday, 18 July 2011, shows flooding. Compare to bottom image acquired a year ago, showing no flooding. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory courtesy MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center.)

    Extreme humidity combined with extreme heat creates extreme consequences for human health. As Ricky Rood writes:

    Now if I was a public health official, and I was trying to understand how a warming planet might impact my life, then here is how I would think about it. First, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific are going to be warmer, and hence, there will be more humid air. This will mean, with regard to human health for the central U.S., heat waves will become more dangerous, without necessarily becoming hotter. It is also reasonable to expect heat waves will become more frequent and last longer, because those persistent, stuck high pressure systems are, in part, forced by the higher sea surface temperatures. If I am a public health official here is my algorithm—heat waves are already important to my life, and they are likely to get more dangerous, more frequent, and of longer duration.

    In other parts of the country this year the extreme heat is compounded by extreme drought—with its own extreme outcomes... including the haboob that struck Phoenix on 5 July 2011. The time lapse video is amazing.

    From Christopher Burt's weatherhistorian blog:

    The drought in the south central and southeast of the United States reached epic proportions. Carlsbad, New Mexico went 233 days with no measurable precipitation until a meager 0.01" fell on June 2nd and it has not rained again since (as of July 15th). Pecos, Texas just received 0.02" of precipitation on July 14th, its first measurable amount since September 23, 2010 (293 consecutive dry days). Albuquerque, New Mexico has only had 0.19" of precipitation since January 1st (as of July 15th).For the period of January through June this year has so far been the driest on record (117 years) for the states of New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana.

    (Credit: David Miskus, NOAA/NWS/NCEP/Climate Prediction Center.)

    The above image shows the latest drought conditions in the US where "exceptional" drought is plaguing much of the south. The trend is worsening, as you can see in this 12-week animation.

    Another way of looking at this map is to realize the dark red areas are places where crops are going to fail this year.

    (Fire maps. Credit: Jacques Descloitres. Fire detection algorithm developed by Louis Giglio. Blue Marble background image created by Reto Stokli.)

    Of course drought fuels wildfires too. 

    Arizona and New Mexico both experienced their largest wildfires in history during June and July.

    In the image above you can see the global fire situation between 30 June and 9 July. As bad as the fires in the US, obviously, they're a whole lot worse elsewhere.

    (Las Conchas Fire. Credit: John Fowler via Wikimedia Commons.)

    According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the number of wildfires in the US as of the beginning of July this year is 36,424... and counting.

    These wildlands blazes have burned 4.8 million acres/1.9 million hectares. That's an average of 132 acres/53.4 hectares per fire.

    Which by the way is the largest burned acreage ever recorded in the US during this time period.

    (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data provided by the AIRS science team at NASA/JPL.)  

    Where there's fire, there's carbon monoxide. 

    The images above show high concentrations of carbon monoxide from Arizona's Wallow Fire drifting across the US from June 3-6. Highest concentrations are in dark red. As described by the Earth Observatory:

    Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that damages human health by limiting the flow of oxygen through the body. It is also a key ingredient in the production of harmful ground-level ozone and urban haze.

    (Credit: NOAA's HMS analysis.)

    Today's mega-smoke producers are found in eastern Manitoba and central Ontario.

    In the image above you can see the moderate-to-dense smoke plume crossing the border.

    (Credit: The US Air Quality Smog Blog.)

    And where there's smoke, there's particulate.

    You can see above how Canada's wildfires are driving today's poor air quality (yellow dots) in the Great Lakes region.

    (Thick smoke from drought- and heat-ravaged Canada streams south towards US. Wildfires outlined in red. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, NASA Earth Observatory, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.) 

    Alone, heat, humidity, or smoke are lethal. Combined, they're a juggernaut.

    In Russia last year, a combination of extreme heat and extreme smoke from wildfires killed an estimated 56,000 people.