SUMMARY: Sandy, climate & coming superstorms: Kathryn Miles & Dr. Adam Sobel. Plus new science says our carbon hits in 10 years, not a generation later. Dr. Katharine Ricke.
WELCOME TO THE SHOW
Dr. James Hansen wrote his pivotal book “Storms of My Grandchildren“. But in 2012, the Atlantic experienced the largest storm ever recorded. It was Hurricane Sandy, the most expensive storm ever, causing billions of dollars in damage. Manhattan was flooded. Parts of the New Jersey shore were demolished. Two hundred and eighty five people were killed. It was also the big new show-case for both rising seas and storm surge.
Was Hurricane Sandy a freak once-in-century storm, or can we expect more and worse as planet Earth heats up? What about Asia and the Pacific, where Japan was raked by a series of tropical cyclones this fall. A giant storm just battered the Philippines – again. Are those climate related? Radio Ecoshock investigates.
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KATHRYN MILES: “Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy”
These days, you and I face situations we’ve never encountered before. It’s climate change, terrorism, a new disease, or maybe an economic crash . But humans and their governments act on experience, not the future. As our next guest can tell us, responses based on the past can fail badly.
Kathryn Miles has an exciting new book out about Hurricane Sandy. That’s the monster storm that flooded New York City, and wrecked much of the New England shore, in late October 2012. Miles tells the gripping tale in “Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy.” But I think the storm and the book are also a lens for looking at preparedness during a time of climate disruption.
Kathryn has written several books. She’s a science writer published in Outside Magazine, Popular Mechanics, and many other periodicals. Miles is currently writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College in Vermont.
Kathryn explains this was the largest Atlantic storm ever, at over 1,000 miles in diameter. Operators in the International Space Station were amazed to see a continent-sized storm. It was larger than all of Europe.
After Hurricane Sandy raked the Caribbean Islands, 39 out of 40 weather models showed it spinning harmlessly out into the Atlantic. That’s normal, as both the prevailing winds, and the spinning of the Earth, takes storms toward the East. I didn’t know, until Kathryn told us, that hurricanes do not have much propulsion on their own. They more or less float with the prevailing wind and pressure systems.
The European weather modellers said Sandy would take a left hook into the area around New York City. Kathryn did exhaustive research with weather and climate scientists for this book. She says a combination of factors, including hotter seas, and a blocking high pressure zone over Greenland, pushed Sandy into combining with a different type of storm known as a “Nor’easter“.
When “Hurricane Sandy” became this hybrid – the National Hurricane Center stopped sending warnings to top government agencies. Their aging software couldn’t handle this hybrid, and they are only directed to work on “Hurricanes”. So warnings fell to local stations of the National Weather Service.
No wonder then that various authorities fell into confusion! In this interview we cover the big difference between the approaches taken by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Having been stung by unnecessary evacuations for the previous Hurricane Irene, Bloomberg held a press conference telling New Yorkers not to worry. Then a 34 foot high wall of watery storm surge washed over the city, flooding downtown Manhattan, subway lines, businesses and homes.
By contrast, Chris Christie told people in no uncertain language to “get the Hell off the beach” and evacuate. No doubt he saved some lives. But even so, and this is critical in evaluating human response to extreme climate events: 70% of the people told to evacuate did not. They stayed put, were flooded out, and some died.
Author Miles looked into that too. It turns out humans need at least three days of warning, with repeated warnings, before they will really act. Apparently it takes us that long to believe. Maybe that applies to government officials as well? I’m thinking of the terrible fires in Australia – “Black Saturday” in February 2009. The government wrongly advised people to stay and defend their homes, facing an incredible climate-driven firestorm. 173 people died.
In the story of the late Robin Waldridge, the Captain of the sailing ship “The Bounty“, Kathryn brings out a case study of our weakness in judging risk. That human flaw in risk judgment applies directly to our ability to survive a lot of things, including droughts, heat, storms, and fires. If we haven’t seen it before, or we were always fine in the past, we don’t get out of the way, or change our behavior. You can expect to see this time and time again. It may even happen to you!
Predictably, the only fiery criticism Kathryn received after writing “Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy” was from Meteorologists! Some weather specialists still don’t get the long-term storm implications of climate change. Some continue to deny climate change plays a role.
Others, and certainly the climate scientists she interviewed, are certain a warmer world plays several key roles in extreme storms.
1. this warmer world holds at least 4% more water in the atmosphere. That gives storms more power, and can cause extreme rainfall events, as happened during Hurricane Irene.
2. the oceans are measurably hotter. It turns out, the ocean off New England is quite bit hotter during the last few years. That also adds to the power of extreme storms.
3. the seas are rising. I’ll talk more about this with our next guest Adam Sobel. The water around New York City is about one foot higher than it was in the year 1900. There are several reasons for that, it’s not just climate change. But a higher sea adds to the storm surge, and that was the most damaging part of Hurricane Sandy.
Climate scientists are less certain about other impacts of a warming world. Most think we may get fewer hurricanes or tropical cyclones, but the ones that do come will be more powerful. There’s a lot we don’t know for sure about that.
The U.S. currently has 500 un-staffed positions in the National Weather System, including staff needed to run radar and work. Their budget cut by 8.5%. America has Doppler radar that crashes, satellites beyond their lifespan. The Hurricane warning service has to borrow from other countries, including some excellent work done by Cuba. This weakness in predicting extreme weather is a national crisis, and a personal threat.
Aside from all the science and research in Kathryn Mile’s book, it’s a terrific drama, wound around a series of personalities well-drawn by the author. It’s literally hard to put down.
ADAM SOBEL: SANDY, CLIMATE AND EXTREME WEATHER
We are lucky to have an extreme weather specialist and atmosphere scientist here to help. Columbia University Professor Adam Sobel just published his new book “Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future“.
Adam wrote me saying he’s just returned from the Eighth International Workshop on Tropical Cyclones (IWTC-VIII) organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). That was held at Jeju Island, South Korea. It’s invitation only for the world’s top forecasters and researchers. They go over the past 4 years of new science on tropical cyclones (which are also called hurricanes or typhoons).
The Philippines was just rocked by cyclone “Ruby” also know in Asia as “Hagupit”. I’m beginning to wonder if some places in the world will be so badly damaged by repeated storms that people will abandon coastal settlements. Certainly some Pacific Islands are already threatened, with Kiribati likely the first to go underwater during storms.
But will we have more storms due to climate change? I remember back in 2006 when the New England scientist Emanuel Kerry produced papers saying hurricanes would be more frequent due to climate change. Then he backtracked, and it seems to me they haven’t been more frequent since the year 2000, compared to the late 1900’s. Adam Sobel agrees, but cautions we don’t know how this experiment with climate will translate into weather. Some scientists think we will see more large storms. Forget the “storm-of-the-century” lable. We’ll see plenty of them.
Let’s talk about the sea level around New York City. Sobel says the water is about one foot higher now than in 1900. Like many coastal cities, New York was actually partly build on former swamps and lowlands. Some of it is extended with landfill into the former ocean. Adam says about 2/3 of that foot higher water around NYC is due to rising seas, due to simple expansion of the hotter ocean, and new water pouring in from Greenland and Antarctica. The other 1/3 of a foot is due to a pattern of sinking coastlines, as a slow reaction to the retreat of the heavy glaciers thousands of years ago. It’s called subsidence, which means the land is sinking.
Our guest last year, J. Court Stevenson from the University of Maryland explained that for 10 billion dollars New York could build tide and surge control gates at the three entrances to New York harbor. These would be like the surge gates on the Thames in London, or in the Netherlands. So far, following the Bloomberg lead, this is not part of the plan. I think it’s only a matter of time before the next Sandy floods New York.
We also got a harsh lesson on the real value of coastal real estate. There’s no doubt that during this century, humans will have to exercise a planned withdrawal from many parts of the coast-line. That will include from parts of mega-cities from New York to Shanghai. As Dr. Peter Ward warned, sea level rise will reshape geography and economies around the world. (Ward’s You tube lecture on his book “The Flooded Earth, Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps” is here).
It seems strange that many New Yorkers think more about a single day terrorist attack on their city, than they do of a coming century of floods and multi-billions of dollars of damage from climate change. In 9/11 we found out how critical New York City is to our economic system. I think if New York is faced with rising seas, high storm surges, and probably killer heat waves, that is also a national security issue.
Here is a climate central article on new wave of research into impact of climate change on severe storms.
If you want to get more detail on the damage to New York City during Sandy, try this fascinating interview by WNYC Pacifica host Leonard Lopate, talking with Dr. Adam Sobel.
STARTLING NEW SCIENCE ON PEAK CO2
Every now and then there’s a game-changing scientific paper about climate change. I saw this one , and right away invited our next guest. Katharine Ricke, known as Kate, joined well-known scientist Ken Caldeira to investigate a critical question: how long does it take the carbon we emit today to reach it’s peak heating potential. If you answered 50 years or more, you are in for a shock.
The title of the new paper is a give-away: “Maximum warming occurs about one decade after a carbon dioxide emission“. That was published December 2nd, 2014 in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The lead author is Katharine Ricke, a Post Doctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institute for Science, at Stanford University in California. She is our guest in this segment of Radio Ecoshock.
This study is a bombshell. We’ve been told for years that carbon emissions will really impact our children and grandchildren, not us. Now we find out the peak heating is only ten years after emissions.
Or course it doesn’t end there. The warming action of carbon dioxide goes on not just for centuries, but for tens of thousands of years. That’s because carbon dioxide is a relatively inert chemical in the atmosphere. It doesn’t change much chemically over time.
Contrast that with methane. After only ten years or so, methane starts to break down – mainly into carbon dioxide. That is why scientists like David Archer argue that we must concentrate on carbon dioxide, rather than fear methane emissions. That’s another whole argument we’ve been carrying in various Radio Ecoshock shows.
An obvious question from a non-scientist would be: why does a puff of carbon dioxide take ten years to become most active in trapping heat radiation? Why doesn’t it have the maximum impact as soon as it rises up into the atmosphere? Katharine answered it’s because the oceans are slow to react, but to be honest, I still don’t understand the answer to this question. If any scientists are reading this right now, or if you think you know why this delay occurs, please email me. The address is radio //at// ecoshock.org. Or post your response in the comments below.
Former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said “It may take 100 years to heat up this huge thermal mass so it reaches a uniform temperature … The damage we have done today will not be seen for at least 50 years.“
I found plenty more like that. This is a long-running misconception. It has shaped climate negotiations and government responses. Now we have science that shows CO2 in a different light.
This discovery is personal too. If I think my crappy low-mileage car won’t affect me, maybe I won’t try to bike or use public transit. But it’s a different story if my emissions could change the climate just ten years from now, isn’t it?
Drawing from over 6,000 runs of the best climate models on the planet, about 90% of the results showed CO2 hitting it’s great heating potential around 10 years. The window was something like 6 years at the earliest, with a few showing a period as long as 30 years. But the science is pretty clear on 10 years.
There are some large uncertainties, including climate sensitivity, and the reaction of the carbon cycle (including carbon used by living things) and thermal inertia of the oceans.
This paper was written partly in response to a school of scientific thought, lead by Matthews and Solomon’s 2013 paper, saying our past emissions do not determine future warming. Our future emissions do. It’s a tricky problem to explain. The paper is “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unavoidable” published in the journal “Science” on April 26, 2013.
WARMING IN THE PIPELINE
Following their paper, the excellent science blogger John Cooke bluntly says there is no warming in the pipeline. Future warming is only determined by future emissions, so we can control climate change by controlling our emissions. More warming is not “baked in” they say.
My understanding was that people like Dr. James Hansen talk about up to 1 degree, or more, in the pipeline, because of heat stored by the oceans and global dimming, or the aerosol pollution that diminishes sun arriving to the surface. Dr. Ricke agrees there is warming “in the pipeline” beyond the ten year lag you found in this new research.
AS AN ASIDE: WOULD “INDUSTRIAL SHUTDOWN” START RUNAWAY CLIMATE HEATING?
This debate about what happens if our air pollution clears up (likely a burst of heating) is discussed in yet another seminal paper by Andrew H. MacDougal, Avid and Weaver titled “Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback“. For you doomsters out there, these scientists look at a case they describe as “industrial shutdown”.
“Thawing permafrost will release carbon to the atmosphere that will have an appreciable additional effect on climate change, adding at least one quarter of a degree Celsius by the end of the century and perhaps nearly as much as one degree (about 1.5°F).
The permafrost feedback response to our historic emissions, even in the absence of future human emissions, is likely to be self-sustaining and will cancel out future natural carbon sinks in the oceans and biosphere over the next two centuries.“
Thus, even if we “stopped emissions tomorrow” the MacDougall study suggests, contrary to Matthews and Solomon, that CO2 would not decrease (and so warming would continue) if only because of the warming set in motion now that the Permafrost is melting.
This Climate Progress article also discusses “the industrial shutdown experiment”. The authors (MacDougall et al, including Canadian scientist Andrew Weaver) imagined a complete shut-down of carbon emissions in 2013, and in 2050.
It notes that because the added permafrost heating could be balanced by ocean and biosphere uptake, this feedback effect does NOT equate with a runaway greenhouse effect.
“Note that a self-sustaining feedback is not the same thing as a runaway greenhouse effect.”
The shutdown in 2013 results in CO2 stabilizing around 400 ppm for at least the next 300 years. A shutdown in 2050 yields a stable level around 550 ppm, on average, with a higher or lower level dependent on the as-yet-uncertain climate sensitivity.
Find more on the “industrial shutdown” experiment in this article by John Cooke. It’s deep.
A further article on this study can be found here.
Scientists generally consider the “industrial shutdown” scenario so unlikely, they either ignore it, or just look at “what-if” scenarios. However, it is conceivable that an industrial shutdown could occur due to a mega solar storm knocking out electric grids, a major nuclear war, an unstoppable disease in humans (think ebola on steroids), a meteor striking the Earth, or even a collapse of the current system (similar to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but globally, and on a much larger scale).
A cessation of human caused carbon emissions sounds possible by 2050, but is not really viable if we keep our present system of agriculture, and persist in terraforming, such as deforestation, both of which contribute to substantial emissions even without an industrial culture.
BACK TO PEAK CARBON DIOXIDE
In a well-written article at climatecentral, Andrew Freedman found scientists who temper your discovery for several reasons. Some say the timing doesn’t matter, all that matters to the climate system is the total greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, whenever that comes.
Another caution is from Zurich scientist Reto Knutti, who tells climatecentral, quote:
“It takes only a few years for the climate to respond to emissions, but it takes a generation, at least, to change the emissions. We are slow, not the climate.”
We discuss all that in our interview.
After reading this study, I was left wondering how long a particular carbon emission can stay active in the atmosphere. Your graphs appear to stop after 100 years, with the carbon impact still pretty high. In fact, it doesn’t decline much after the 10 year peak. How long does carbon dioxide stay potent as a warming gas in the atmosphere?
I interviewed David Archer about this. In his book “The Long Thaw”, and in his Radio Ecoshock interview, Archer said that CO2 emitted today would remain in the atmosphere for at least 50,000 years, if not 100,000. You can see a You tube video of that Radio Ecoshock interview here.
Archer did not mean a particular molecule of CO2, which is recycled through the biosphere, but that additional molecule level would be maintained for a very long time. The paper by Ricke and Caldeira stops at 100 years not because they disagree, but because that was the time frame of the best data sets – and all they needed to answer their principal question: how long does it take for CO2 to reach it’s peak potential for heating the atmosphere?
This was also published in this scientific paper: Archer D et al 2009 Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 37 117–34
EVEN IF CARBON REACHES A PEAK IN 10 YEARS, THE TRUE IMPACTS MAY TAKE MUCH LONGER
From the paper by Ricke and Caldeira:
“While the maximum warming effect of a CO2 emission may manifest itself in only one decade, other impact-relevant effects, such as sea level rise, will quite clearly not reach their maximum until after the first century (see, e.g., figure 2(c) of Joos et al (2013)). For many impacts, such as changes to natural ecosystems, degradation is the result of the cumulative effects of consecutive years of warming or precipitation change (Parmesan and Yohe 2003). Ice sheet melting can persist for thousands of years following a warming (Huybrechts et al 2011). As such, even if maximum warming occurs within a decade, maximum impact may not be reached until much later. From this perspective, Steven Chu’s statement that today’s damage ‘will not be seen for at least 50 years’ may well be
THIS NEW SCIENCE PUSHES MORE URGENCY TO ACT ON CARBON REDUCTIONS
This new science may help push climate negotiations into high gear in Paris next year. Now we know we don’t have time to set long-term goals and slowly reduce CO2. Our emissions now will hit us hard and fast within 10 years!
From the conclusion of this paper:
“Our paper corrects a potential misconception that the largest effects of today’s emissions will be felt only by future generations. Benefit from avoided CO2 emissions will most likely be manifested within the lifetimes of the people who act to avoid those emissions.”
Find links to this paper, a video of Katharine explaining it here.
CONGRATULATIONS IF YOU MADE IT THIS FAR!
I admit this week’s blog is too long. But I got almost a year of education just researching for this week’s guests. There was way too much to cover on the radio, and I found deep tunnels going into science that can determine how our future develops, and maybe whether we will survive our own carbon civilization.
I invite you to follow up on the links, and ask yourself the same hard questions.
A NOTE TO N. IN BOSTON
I need to tell my anonymous donor and supporter “N.” in Boston: I got your letter and I’m looking into your suggested reading and guests. Thank you.
We have some more tough questions in coming shows. I found a great radio documentary on the perils of dreaming about eco-community, and survival after oil. Then I’m going to challenge another green dream: alternative energy. Is it real, or just another carbon-dependent mirage. Stay tuned.
You can download all our past programs as free mp3 files from the web site ecoshock.org. Listen to our most recent programs on Soundcloud here. There have been so many top scientists, authors and activists on Radio Ecoshock its almost an open university, cruising the past interviews.
As always, I sincerely thank you for listening, and for caring about our world.