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Climate Change Left Its Fingerprint On The Most Extreme Disasters in 2017

The science is progressing to the point where ignoring it could cause legal problems

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Climate change
A Feb. 11, 2017, aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources shows a damaged spillway with an eroded hillside in Oroville, California. VOA

Drought in the United States and East Africa. Floods in Peru and Bangladesh. Heatwaves in Europe and China. Even unusual cloudiness in Japan. Climate change left its fingerprints on some of the biggest climate extremes of 2017, according to a new assessment.

The report highlights how a changing climate has real-life implications for the professionals who have to deal with the consequences. Case in point: water managers faced with record-breaking rainfall that overwhelmed a faltering dam in California.

“This is not a problem for the future. It’s a problem for today,” said Penn State University climate scientist David Titley, who was not involved with the research.

Seventeen studies from 10 countries make up the report, which the American Meteorological Society has been publishing annually since 2011.

They tease apart the factors that led to each extreme event and estimate the extent to which climate change contributed.

Drought, Climate Change
In this July 26, 2017, photo, soybeans grow in a farm field near Indianola, Iowa. Drought conditions are getting worse in several states, and extreme heat and weeks with little rain have begun to stress corn, soybeans, wheat and livestock. VOA

For example, drought parched the U.S. Northern Great Plains in the summer of 2017, drying up farms and ranches, sparking wildfires and racking up more than $2 billion in damage.

The study found that climate change did not affect the amount of rain that fell over the region.

However, higher temperatures brought on by global warming meant that soil dried out quicker. That means a drought of this severity is 1.5 times more likely than it would have been without climate change, the report said.

The report was released at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. It comes as U.N. climate negotiators are meeting in Poland.

At that meeting, U.S., Russian and Saudi negotiators aimed to downplay a dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impacts of global warming.

The new study’s findings confirm what the IPCC first predicted nearly 30 years ago, said study editor Martin Hoerling, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate Change, hurricane michael, Storms
In this photograph released by the Sri Lankan Air Force media division on May 29, 2017, flooding is seen in the country’s Matara district. VOA

According to the group’s first report, the impacts seen today are “the type of change in weather and climate that we would experience if we continued on a trajectory of increasing carbon dioxide,” Hoerling said. “We have certainly done so, and the consequences are unfolding.”

In Oroville, California, last February, the consequences of climate change provided a case study in the challenges of managing critical infrastructure in the face of a changing climate.

A series of torrential rains overfilled the lake behind the Oroville Dam. Because of a damaged spillway, overflowing water threatened to destroy the dam. Nearly 200,000 people downstream were evacuated.

The reservoir was already full when the storm that nearly broke the dam hit. One major reason, the report notes, was the unusual warmth at the end of the previous year. Storms that would normally have fallen as snow instead fell as rain.

Other California dams handled the deluge without incident, however, noted study co-author and hydrologist Julie Vano at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. It was the combination of climate change-driven extreme weather and the damaged spillway that made Oroville a near-disaster.

Fire, CLimate Change, California
Firefighters battle a wildfire as it threatens to jump a street near Oroville, California. VOA

“With aging infrastructure and more development happening in places where there’s risk exposure, we really need to think about how we manage our systems,” she said.

The science is progressing to the point where ignoring it could cause legal problems, according to attorney Lindene Patton with the Earth & Water Law Group.

Drought in the United States and East Africa. Floods in Peru and Bangladesh. Heatwaves in Europe and China. Even unusual cloudiness in Japan.

For example, she said, take the owner of a hypothetical chemical plant located near a river.

Engineers typically design safety features based on historical rainfall patterns. “If your calculations are done assuming 1970s rainfall events,” Patton said, “then your design would not be prepared for today’s climate.”

Also Read: As Climate Talks Come to a Halt, Africa Suffers From Global Warming

When climate science can show that rainfall patterns have changed, she added, “if you don’t use that different set of rainfall tables and a chemical release occurs, then you may find a claim is made against you.” (VOA)

Next Story

Glaciers in Alaska Melting due to Climate Change

Disappearing Frontier: Alaska's Glaciers Retreating at Record Pace

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Alaska Glaciers
A sign marks where the end of the Exit glacier was in 2010 near tourists taking photos in the Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. VOA

Alaska will soon close a year that is shaping up as its hottest on record, with glaciers in the “Frontier State” melting at record or near-record levels, pouring waters into rising global seas, scientists said after taking fall measurements.

Lemon Creek Glacier in Juneau, where records go back to the 1940s, had its second consecutive year of record mass loss, with 3 meters erased from the surface, U.S. Geological Survey glaciologist Louis Sass told Reuters.

Melt went all the way up to the summit, said Sass, one of the experts who travel to benchmark glaciers to take measurements in the fall.

“That’s a really bad sign for a glacier,” he said, noting that high-altitude melt means there is no accumulation of snow to compact into ice and help offset lower-elevation losses.

At Wolverine Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, loss was the second highest in a record that goes back to the 1960s. Sass said it failed to match the record set in 2004 only because so much of the glacier had already melted.

Chugach National Forest Alaska
Chugach National Forest ranger Megan Parsley holds photos showing this summer’s ice loss at the face of Portage Glacier, Alaska, U.S. VOA

“The lower part’s completely gone now,” he said.

Drastic melting was also reported at Kenai Fjords National Park, which former President Barack Obama once visited to call attention to climate change. There, Bear Glacier, a popular tourist spot, retreated by nearly a kilometer in just 11 months, according to August measurements by the National Park Service.

“It’s almost like you popped it and it started to deflate,” said Nate Lewis, a Seward-based wilderness guide who takes travelers into the new lake that has formed at the foot of the shrinking glacier.

Even one of the few Alaska glaciers that had been advancing, Taku just southeast of the city of Juneau, is now losing ice at a fast clip.

Particularly ominous is the high altitude at which Taku is melting, said Mauri Pelto, who heads the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. This year, the summer melt reached as high as 1,450 meters, 25 meters above the previous high-altitude record set just last year, he said.

Casting off chunks

Barack Obama Alaska
President Barack Obama views Bear Glacier on a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska. VOA

Now that it is retreating, Taku is expected to start casting off big ice chunks, increasing Alaska’s already significant contribution to rising sea levels, according to a study co-authored by Sass and Shad O’Neel, a glaciologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. The study is scheduled to be presented at the annual conference of the American Geologic Union next week in San Francisco.

Alaska recorded its warmest month ever in July and the trend has continued.

“Alaska is on pace to break their record for warmest year unless December is dramatically cooler than forecasted,” Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center, said in a Dec. 1 tweet.

Alaska’s glaciers account for far less than 1 percent of the world’s land ice. But their melt contributes roughly 7 percent of the water that is raising the world’s sea levels, according a 2018 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and co-authored by O’Neel.

There are also local impacts. Scientists say glacial melt affects salmon-spawning streams and harms marine fish and animal habitats. It is creating new lakes in the voids where ice used to be, and outburst floods from those lakes are happening more frequently, scientists say.

Also Read- Oxygen Loss from Oceans Dangerous for Aquatic Species: IUCN Report

Changes in the glaciers and the ecosystems they feed has been so fast that they are hard to track, said O’Neel at USGS, who measured the melt at Wolverine Glacier in September.

“Everything’s been pretty haywire lately.” (VOA)