Atmosphere specialist David Keellings on the new age of super-hurricane/cyclones. Swiss scientist Martha Vogel on multiple deadly heat waves spanning continents. Alex says it’s time to kill tourism. Greta Thunberg on lies her generation must live with.
“No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it.”
– Daniel Defoe “The Storm”, published in July 1704
DAVID KEELLINGS: CLIMATE-ENHANCED HURRICANE MARIA
On September 20th, 2017 record-smashing Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Thousands died because of it. New science confirms the devastating rains and floods during Maria were far more likely due to climate change.
According to recent data from the US Census Bureau, after the storm about 4% of the population of the island fled for the United States mainland. They are among the new American climate refugees, joining those from Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina.
The new paper is titled “Extreme Rainfall Associated With Hurricane Maria Over Puerto Rico and Its Connections to Climate Variability and Change.” We have reached the lead author, Dr. David J. Keellings, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Alabama.
From Tuscaloosa, we welcome David Keellings to Radio Ecoshock.
Just 8 days before Maria struck, David and his coauthor José Hernández Ayala published research on extreme floods and tropical cyclones in Puerto Rico! It turns out Dr. Ayala is from Puerto Rico with family still there. Both scientists recognized the unique climate geography in Puerto Rico and decided on the paper “Extreme floods and their relationship with tropical cyclones in Puerto Rico.” Now following the disaster of Maria, which still continue today, that 2017 research seems prescient.
Although local officials claimed only 64 people died during Maria, a study by George Washington University says the hurricane caused about 3,000 deaths, direct and indirect. The speed and amount of rain contributed to the devastation of Maria, an order of magnitude greater than other tropical storms and hurricanes, like Georges and Hortense, which caused deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
In his blog at wunderground.com about this new Keellings/Ayala paper on Maria and the Puerto Rico rains, Jeff Masters points out a kind of feedback effect between ocean heat, water vapor, and storm strength. Talking about “latent heat” released as water vapor condenses into rain, Jeff says that latent heat causes even more water vapor to be sucked up, making still more rain. That is indeed a “positive feedback loop” says David Keellings, although the public keeps confusing “positive” with “good”, when in science this kind of climate loop is very, very bad.
Science warns we should expect about 7% more water vapor in the air for every 1°C of ocean warming. A new report from the World Meteorological Organization says in 2018 the heat content of the upper levels of the ocean were the highest ever recorded. Maybe we will see a new scale of hurricane rains, off the scale. I ask David: will we need a Category 6 designation for coming storms?
His answer intrigued me. Keellings suggests that physics may have upper limits for the strength of storms on Earth. But he wasn’t sure what that limit might be – something I would have to take up with cloud experts. I think we all fear even worse super-storms, something not seen before in human times. If there is an upward limit, that might be comforting to know. Although I recall James Hansen, leading a huge group of climate scientists, wrote about massive storms in the Atlantic in Earth’s past, big enough to toss massive rocks the size of houses a long distance inland on Caribbean Islands. We sure don’t want to see that. Keep track of the super storms on Jeff Masters’ blog “CAT 6“.
Closer to David’s adopted home state of Alabama (he originally came from Scotland) – a report released in April by NOAA and the National Weather Service upgrades Hurricane Michael to Category 5. Only three Cat 5 hurricanes ever made landfall in the continental United States before. Michael smashed the Florida Panhandle on October 7, 2018, and now becomes the fourth Cat 5. The full report from NOAA/NWS here.
There are also a number of new studies out on Hurricane Harvey and the increased risks of extreme rains hitting the U.S. Gulf coast. One study found, and I’ll quote Dr. Jeff Masters here, “Climate change made Hurricane Florence’s most intense rains over North Carolina in 2018 more than 50% greater in magnitude than they would have been otherwise…”
I also ask Dr. Keellings about his earlier work about heat waves expected in Florida as climate change develops. He notes that “heat waves have become increasingly frequent and intense throughout much of the state.” That’s pretty important for a state that grows much of the winter food for America.
Re David Keellings interview, this: “Psychologists release results of survey of “Maria generation” kids – “More than seven percent of youth reported clinically significant symptoms of PTSD” published April 28, 2019 on one of my favorite blogs, “Desdamona Despair”.
In fact, the despair on Puerto Rico is so bad after that devastating hurricane, some people are calling the suffering youth “The Maria Generation“.
You can also find an article by NPR radio on this Keellings-led research on Maria here.
MARTHA VOGEL – HEAT WAVES POPPING UP AT THE SAME TIME ACROSS THE PLANET
When the Arctic sea ice crashed in 2007, it was a great signal of human interference in the climate of this planet. Now Swiss researchers have found another: beginning in 2010, giant heat waves appeared in multiple places around the Earth, at the same time. That is a really big deal, as you hear in this interview.
Dr. Martha Vogel is a Post Doctoral Researcher of Land-Climate Dynamics at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of science and technology. She is co-author of a paper still awaiting publication, but already causing waves. Although based in Zurich, we reached Martha in Budapest.
Dr. Martha Vogel
We talk about the massive heat experienced in many places around the Northern Hemisphere in 2018. But I was surprised to learn Switzerland was also stuck by excessive heat last year. People picture Switzerland as a cooler, mountainous place – but no one is immune to climate change. In earlier work, Martha’s group said Central Europe is expected to warm more strongly than the world average.
So is Canada, as I covered in a recent show. But keep in mind, many lands will warm more than the global average – because that average includes the much larger ocean surfaces, which heat more slowly. Oceans can absorb a lot of the sun’s energy, while land tends to reflect most of it.
Listen to or download this 13 minute interview with Dr. Martha Vogel in CD Quality (only)
According to new research led by Dr. Vogel, the first large-scale multi-continental heatwave show up in the records in 2010. In that year Russian, one of the world’s largest wheat exporters, suffered so much crop loss they cancelled grain exports. Social scientists say the resulting rising grain (and bread) prices was one cause of the “Arab Spring” uprisings a year later.
If North America also lost wheat to heat at the same time, there could have been a global food crisis, possibly even famine. This new research suggests we are entering an age where multiple food failures could occur.
Recently Martha presented the new findings on simultaneous heatwaves at the European Geosciences Union press conference in Vienna. But the new paper is still in review, so I can’t link to the publication yet. You can find the official ETH Zurich press release about it here.
The journal reference (so you can look it up when it comes out is:
Vogel MM, Zscheischler J, Wartenburger R, Dee D, Seneviratne SI. “Concurrent 2018 hot extremes across Northern Hemisphere due to human-induced climate change”. Earth’s Future, 2019 (in review)
In 2003, a deadly heat wave killed tens of thousands of Europeans. Martha participated in a 2016 paper asking whether a heat event in the year 1540 was even hotter. In that paper about the year of 1540, the scientists had records of days without rainfall, but not direct temperature records. The authors assumed dry days were probably hotter days.
When I became aware of a warming world in 1990, I pictured a gradually warming world. That didn’t sound too bad. This new science suggests we will be hit be pop-up extreme heat events instead, hitting many places at once. That is already happening. It is hard on animals (bats dropping dead out of trees in Australia), plants (failed crops and changed wild plants), and humans (heat now the leading cause of premature deaths in Australia, overtaking driving accidents.)
THE DRUG KILLING WORLD VULTURES
Let me tell you a story of how we humans are. A friend with arthritis got a prescription for a medication called “Diclofenac”. Rubbed on the skin, it does help stop the pain for a while. Only when checking on the web did he discover that Diclofenac is absolutely toxic to cats. A woman who applied it to her knees, reported her cat died after licking her knees. But it goes much further than that.
We may not see vultures much longer, due to Diclofenac being given to humans & to animals. In India, Diclofenac given to cows has led to the disappearance of an astounding 99% of India’s vultures. That is a giant unspeakable loss in nature. The unconsumed offal (rotting animals) led to a big increase in wild dogs in India, which brought rabies and fear to children.
After the mass death of vultures, the drug was banned for veterinary use in India in 2006. But did we learn anything after wiping out India’s vultures with an unnecessary drug? No. After that, Spain approved Diclofenac for animal use in 2013. Spain has about 90% of the last vultures of Europe. It is another example of our group insanity. Apparently, we cannot stop killing nature, even when the killing is unnecessary. Humans do not even know we are doing that.
PENGUINS FAIL TO REPRODUCE IN ANTARCTICA
Take another horrifying example. Perhaps you have seen a stunning documentary on the amazing Emperor Penguins managing to raise their chicks on Antarctica. Perhaps your children have seen those penguins in cartoon movies. But the world’s second largest colony of Emperor Penguins has just experienced it’s third year of what scientists call almost total breeding failure.
In the science journal Antarctic Science, a new study by the British Atlantic Survey says changes in the ice in this age of global warming threatens to wipe out around 7 percent of the world’s total Penguin population, in this one area. The emperor penguin colony at Halley Bay looks like it is going extinct. Half a planet away, people are flying and driving around as though we are not responsible for heating up the world. Our emissions are killing the great Emperor Penguins.
THE UNSEEN PLAGUE OF OCEAN WARMING
This leads me to another problem that has so far escaped my efforts to capture it. I’m talking about ocean warming. About ninety percent of our excess warming of the planet goes into the oceans. We would be frying right now if that did not happen.
You know water heats slowly, and then cools slowly, releasing heat slowly. I can find scientists who study and explain that the ocean is warming. The World Meteorological Organization just released a report saying the top 700 meters of the sea is warming the most. But who can say what that means, when the impacts pop up all over the place, from Antarctic Penguin breeding grounds, to dying coral off Australia, to bigger storms wiping out Caribbean Islands, to Arctic Ice threatening the last polar bears. Perhaps it’s too big to tell.
According to the latest quarterly report from Carbon Brief: “The first few months of 2019 have set new records for OHC, with a particularly pronounced jump in February and March 2019.”
Carbon Brief continues, quote:
“In many ways, OHC represents a much better measure of climate change than global average surface temperatures. It is where most of the extra heat ends up and is much less variable on a year-to-year basis than surface temperatures. Most years set a new record for OHC and 2019 has been no exception so far, with the first three months showing the warmest OHC since records began.
Changes in the amount or rate of warming are much easier to detect in the OHC record than on the surface. For example, OHC shows little evidence of the slowdown in warming in the mid-2000s, seen in surface temperature records. It also shows a distinct acceleration after 1991, matching the increased rate of greenhouse gas emissions over the past few decades.”
What I’m hearing is that the current land-based warming of 1 degree over pre-industrial times, accepted by most scientists, is not as reliable as measuring heat changes in the sea. Plus, we have buried massive amounts of heat in the ocean, and that will come back to life, will come back into the atmosphere, over the next few centuries. So we can set a target of two degrees warming, which I think is a dangerous fantasy, but whatever goals we set, the ocean will keep returning more and more of our past heat to the atmosphere and our lives, if we still have lives.
Here is just another small example. The famous beaches of Mexico’s Caribbean coast are being covered by masses of brown slimy seaweed. It is the sargasso, coming in from the off-shore Sargasso Sea area of the Atlantic. But now with heated waters in prime tourist areas, this seaweed is taking over. Despite efforts to clean it up daily, the beaches are littered with smelly rotting seaweed. Tourist visits have dropped significantly, and that is the only industry locals have to survive on. That is due to ocean warming.
SADLY, TOURISM MUST DIE – OR WE ROAST OUR KIDS AND GRAND KIDS
Of course, there are likely hundreds of millions of people in the tropics who depend directly or indirectly on money coming from tourists. But that whole industry, the very idea of flying around for pleasure, must die until we reach the times of fossil-free airplanes. One solar plane manages to fly around the world over a period of a year. We could revive sailing ships, which can take a month to reach the resorts. But in the near-term, I’m calling on everyone of you to stop the madness. The time of flying anywhere for a “vacation” is over. It is killing the planet. We are killing a livable climate for fun.
I don’t like to preach. My own carbon struggle continues. I prefer to let you come to your own conclusions. But isn’t it time, finally now, to talk like this? How can we continue to daydream about our big trip which will kill off more life and wreck our kids’ future? How can we admire people who do travel, and keep silent about what we know?
“Every single journal should have a shrieking headline every day saying we are heading to total catastrophe. In a couple of generations, organized human society may not survive. That has to be drilled into people’s heads constantly.”
– Noam Chomsky
Meanwhile, the warming oceans are licking away at the bottom of glaciers at both Poles. Arctic sea ice is again at a new record low in January 2019. Antarctic sea ice is shrinking, as reported on Radio Ecoshock. Antarctic glaciers are now sliding into the sea, “unstoppable” as NASA warned a couple of years ago. Glacial melt is now passing simple expansion due to heating of the oceans as a source of sea level rise.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, “Today, sea level is 5 to 8 inches (13-20 centimeters) higher on average than it was in 1900.” The seas are rising faster since 1990, increasing each year, and will continue to rise for the next thousand years at least. There is no “coastline” now, just a temporary place where the ocean is arriving. Coastal real estate markets are just beginning to hear the real news.
When you add it all up, the world economy must soon begin to shiver and shake. It must if we want to survive. As George Monbiot bravely says, unsocial capitalism is killing not just us, but most life as we know it. The crucial link for your survival is not whether you can keep a car or a TV, but whether you will have adequate food and water. Watch the food chain, learn what is happening in world food markets, and start the process of learning to grow and live from local, fossil-free food.
I think most of the young people, those below twenty years old now, will not live where they are growing up. So much of the world will become uninhabitable. The surviving millions will have to move toward the poles, as the birds and fish are already doing. Northern Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, or Siberia will still be difficult places to survive even when the southern lands are roasting and raked by extreme weather.
We could still make it out of this super-challenge and survive. But so far, it seems humans intend to learn to swim only when they are drowning. We can’t imagine the real future. Most cannot. But some can…like Greta Thunberg.
GRETA SAYS IT BETTER THAN I CAN…
Greta Thunberg speaking to members of UK Parliament and others,
There is so much I can say, but despite my decades learning and working on climate change, I cannot say it better than 16 year-old Greta Thunberg. I’m going to read a few words from her speech to the UK Parliament on April 23rd, 2019. In the radio show, I only dare to speak in her voice because the audio was poor, interrupted by the flash of press cameras and sounds from the crowd. She said:
“In the year 2030 I will be 26 years old. My little sister Beata will be 23. Just like many of your own children or grandchildren. That is a great age, we have been told. When you have all of your life ahead of you. But I am not so sure it will be that great for us.
I was fortunate to be born in a time and place where everyone told us to dream big; I could become whatever I wanted to. I could live wherever I wanted to. People like me had everything we needed and more. Things our grandparents could not even dream of. We had everything we could ever wish for and yet now we may have nothing.
Now we probably don’t even have a future any more.
Because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money. It was stolen from us every time you said that the sky was the limit, and that you only live once.
You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.
Is my microphone on? Can you hear me? Because I’m beginning to wonder…
Around the year 2030, 10 years 252 days and 10 hours away from now, we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilization as we know it. That is unless in that time, permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society have taken place, including a reduction of CO2 emissions by at least 50%.”
Greta Thunberg is the young stick of dynamite in our deadly carbon dream world.
I wrap up the show with the song “We Don’t Have Time” by Sustainable Soundtracks and featuring Adam Baptiste.
Find out more about the We Don’t Have Time organization here.
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for supporting me in this critical radio work, and thank you for listening.