Extreme Weather: Fires and Floods

I have been busy analyzing global data about the ongoing energy transition to a more sustainable world. In addition to reflecting on my whirlwind (and worldwide) trip (September 4, 2019 blog), I wanted to look into global indicators with my two climate classes at Brooklyn College. I was also scheduled to give a talk on the role of game theory in the energy transition and decided to survey the current conditions.

Last week’s blog was the last in that series. Since then, a virtual avalanche of climate-related extreme weather events has taken place.

To start with, it’s fire season in California:

Utility companies have been taking steps to avoid the blame they experienced last year by preemptively cutting power. Below, Wikipedia summarizes:

The 2019 wildfire season is the current-running fire season in California. So far, over 6,402 fires have been recorded according to Cal Fire and the US Forest Service, totaling an estimated of 250,349 acres (101,313 ha) of burned land as of November 3.[1] Although the 2019 fire season had been relatively quiet in California through mid-September as compared to past years,[3] October through December is still expected to have the greatest fire potential as the Diablo winds and the Santa Ana winds pick up.[4]

In late October, the Kincade Fire became the largest fire of the year, burning 77,758 acres (31,468 ha) in Sonoma County by November 6.

Massive preemptive public safety power shutoff (PSPS) events have been controversial. PG&E and other power utilities have preemptively shut off power to over one million residents due to perceived risk of wildfires starting in high winds due to high-voltage power lines. While large areas have been without power for days, people in fire danger areas had trouble getting updates and critical life support equipment would not work without backup power.[5]

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is also facing raging fires:

Three paragraphs from a Nature Conservancy article published on August 30, 2019 explain:

Farmers have been using fire, illegally in many cases, to convert rainforest into ranchland and crop farms for decades, a process known as deforestation. There have been more total fires than 2019’s fires five times since 2004. But deforestation and habitat fragmentation from these other years of fires have led to hotter and drier conditions that make it easier for fire here to spread. Coupled with a lack of oversight, these fires have reached an unprecedented and reckless scale.

Fire has shaped the diversity of life on the planet. Many landscapes depend on fires set by lightning strikes or humans (Indigenous peoples have managed forests sustainably for thousands of years) to keep them healthy and reduce the amount of fuel that can cause a catastrophic mega-fire. Australia’s grasslands and Oregon’s Ponderosa pine forests are examples of fire-adapted landscapes.

The Amazon Rainforest, however, is not a landscape where fire plays a natural role. The humidity and moisture of the rainforest do not lead lightning strikes to often cause fires here, and the plant and animal residents here are not adapted for it. These fires pose direct threats to the rainforest’s biodiversity and its Indigenous peoples, and also can harm the air quality of people throughout South America.

Australia too has fires:

Nature Conservancy also mentions fires in Australia: Australian authorities urge evacuations ahead of ‘catastrophic’ fire threat.

I have discussed many of these types of recurring extreme weather phenomena here before. For example, I looked at the Australian fire season in the February 12, 2019 blog.

Indonesia has both fires and floods:

Indonesia is not only dealing with similarly devastating fires, it is also sinking into the ground. Parts of Jakarta are expected to be completely underwater within thirty years.

NYT: JAKARTA, Indonesia — Nearly 2,000 wildfires are burning across Indonesia, turning the sky blood red over central Sumatra and creating dense clouds of smoke that have caused respiratory problems for nearly a million people.

The blazes, which tore through sensitive rain forests where dozens of endangered species live, have drawn comparisons to the wildfires in the Amazon basin that have destroyed more than 2 million acres. This year’s fires are the worst in Indonesia since 2015. Officials estimate that the fires have burned more than 800,000 acres.

TIME: The Indonesian capital of Jakarta is home to 10 million people but it is also one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world. If this goes unchecked, parts of the megacity could be entirely submerged by 2050, say researchers. Is it too late?

It sits on swampy land, the Java Sea lapping against it, and 13 rivers running through it. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that flooding is frequent in Jakarta and, according to experts, it is getting worse. But it’s not just about freak floods, this massive city is literally disappearing into the ground.

India is yo-yoing between floods and drought:

Throughout India, the number of days with very heavy rains has increased over the last century. At the same time, the dry spells between storms have gotten longer. Showers that reliably penetrate the soil are less common.

Venice is Sinking:

Likewise, the “City of Water” is more than living up to its moniker, facing the disaster of global sea level rise.

“Venice is like a canary in a coal mine,” said Sergio Fagherazzi, a coastal geomorphologist at Boston University, who also grew up in the northern Italian city. “It’s possible to apply the same concept in the U.S., and it’s very relevant now for any low-lying area.”

As climate change causes sea levels in Venice — and across the planet — to steadily inch higher, scientists say catastrophic floods could become more severe and more frequent, with some parts of the city being inundated on a daily basis.

This week’s flooding stemmed from unusually high tides exacerbated by the gravitational effects of the full moon and strong, 62-mph winds that whipped up a higher-than-expected storm surge. On Tuesday, water levels reached 6 feet 2 inches — the highest in 53 years and just 2 inches shy of matching the record of 6 feet 4 inches that was set in November 1966.

In a bit of tragic irony that reflects the denier mindset, Venice’s regional council rejected a plan to combat climate change on November 12th and the city subsequently flooded:

Sharing pictures of the room as water entered, Andrea Zanoni, the Democratic party’s deputy chairman of the council’s environment committee, wrote on Facebook: “Ironically, the chamber was flooded two minutes after the majority parties rejected our proposals to tackle climate change.”

Are there common climate factors in these extreme weather events?

Very much so, say the scientists.“The overall climate signal is that if you have it warmer, it is easier to burn; if you have higher seas, it is easier to flood,” said Prof Gabi Hegerl. “And if you have more moisture in the atmosphere, the same rainfall systems rain harder – that is something we see globally and that has a human greenhouse gas signal in it.”In extreme events, that’s where climate change bites us.”

The very scientific sounding Clausius-Clapeyron equation is one key element. Clausius and Clapeyron are the surnames of the German and French meteorologists who discovered that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. For every 1 degree C increase in temperature, the air can hold about 7% extra water vapor.

When you get the sorts of storms that generate rapid cooling, you get heavier rain falling rapidly out of the clouds, as happened in parts of England last week.

“As temperatures are warmer we get more intense rain, which by itself brings more floods, even if the number of storms hitting our shores don’t change,” said Prof Piers Forster from the University of Leeds.

“When coupled to warmer, wetter winters generally, as expected from climate change, the ground becomes more saturated so any rainfall will give a greater chance of flooding.”

“Stronger winds, again associated with more energy in the climate system, add to the fire risk and make them more intense and faster moving.”

There are multiple factors in all of these events. Humans play an important role—whether directly or indirectly—by way of their contributions to climate change. President Obama’s Science Advisor, John Holdren, testified before the US Senate regarding some of these direct connections (April 1, 2014 blog).

I had planned to delve into California’s recent strategy of disconnecting more than a million customers from the power grid as a precautionary step to prevent fire ignition next week but changed my mind when I read an article in the NYT. Instead, I will return to my continuous struggle to connect climate change with my Holocaust experience.

Meanwhile, to my American readers: have a happy Thanksgiving!

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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