Extreme weather costlier than ever in 2017


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Jenna Ladd | March 28, 2018

As the Northern Hemisphere enters warmer seasons where severe weather and flooding are more likely, it is yet to be seen whether 2018 will top 2017 as the most costly year for natural disasters ever.

Since 1980, the yearly average for natural disasters in the U.S. that cause more than $1 billion in damages has been 5.8 events. Last year, the country saw 16 such events, including three tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two inland floods, a crop freeze, drought and wildfire. While this number technically ties with 2011, 2017 had more extreme weather as wildfires are tallied by region rather than single events, and last year brought more wildfires costing upwards of $1 billion than ever before.

According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, the total cost of severe weather last year was $306.2 billion. This surpassed the previous record by nearly $100 billion dollars. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused $265.0 billion of 2017’s damages. Researchers figure physical damages to buildings and infrastructure as well as crop damages and losses to business into the total cost.

The midwest U.S. saw at least two severe storms last year that caused more than $1 billion in damages, both of them in mid-June. Flooding associated with storms like these has caused some $13.5 billion in economic losses from 1988 to 2015 in Iowa alone, according to a recent op-ed by Iowa Flood Center Director Witold Krajewski. Midwesterners also faced early tornado outbreaks in 2017, which tore across the region in late February and early March. Both events cause more than $1 billion in damages.

The National Centers for Environmental Information point out that increased development in vulnerable areas like coastlines, floodplains and fire-prone areas are causing the increase in billion dollar disasters. Climate change plays a role too. They write,

“Climate change is also paying an increasing role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters. Most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall and inland flooding events are most acutely related to the influence of climate change.”

Gender disparities extend to climate resiliency


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Women are often responsible for gathering fuel and water for domestic purposes, task that is much more difficult and time consuming as the climate continues to change. (Flickr/United Nations Ian Steele)
Jenna Ladd | March 9, 2017

Yesterday’s International Women’s Day inspired record-setting strikes, calls for equal pay and representation as well as conversations about how climate change disproportionally affects women and girls.

A recent photo essay from the United Nation’s titled, “Climate Change is a Women’s Issue” depicts the ways climate disasters and gradually shifting weather patterns exacerbate the social inequities faced by women. Its figures state that 80 percent of the people that have been displaced by climate change worldwide are women. Increasingly frequent periods of drought mean that women and girls also spend much more time walking to retrieve water and much less time working or in school.

The United Nationa’s environment gender expert, Victor Tsang, and communication officer, Shari Nijman, wrote recently,“While environmental changes affect everyone, due to existing gender inequalities, women often bear the bulk of the burden. In patriarchal societies, cultural, legal and political restrictions often undermine women’s adaptability and resilience to climate change.” The authors later suggest that providing equal access to land, agricultural extension services, financial inclusion and education for women is key to curbing and coping with climate change.

For the first time ever, the U.N. climate talks incorporated a Gender Action Plan this year at the COP23 conference in Bonn, Germany. The plan “seeks to advance women’s full, equal and meaningful participation and promote gender-responsive climate policy and the mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the implementation of the Convention and the work of Parties.”

Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security argued in a 2015 report that inclusion of women in high-levels of climate decision-making like the U.N. conference of the parties is necessary, but not sufficient. Among many recommendations, they ask that national governments develop disaster plans that specifically aim to lessen impacts on women and that private sector stakeholders invest in job opportunities for women that also combat the effects of climate change. Researchers point out that these steps not only lessen the burden of a warming planet for women but also recognize them as a powerful part of the solution.

As former Finnish president H.E. Tarja Halonen once said, “[Women] are powerful agents whose knowledge, skills and innovative ideas support the efforts to combat climate change.”

EPA predict counties’ climate disaster resiliency


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Those counties that are deemed more likely to bounce back from a climate disaster are in dark blue, while those most vulnerable counties are light yellow. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
Jenna Ladd | March 2, 2017

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed a Climate Resilience Screening Index (CRSI) and determined the expected resiliency of each county as the climate continues to change, making floods, droughts and wildfires more common.

The report was released in October and used 117 measurements to figure each county’s severe weather risk, governance, society, built environment, and natural environment into an overall resiliency score. Fortunately, researchers found that many U.S. counties have moderate to strong likelihood of bouncing back following a natural disaster however, the outlook varies.

The Appalachians, many counties in the southeast and the western Midwest and some counties in southwestern Texas were found to have lower resiliency scores. The factors that decrease a region’s resiliency in the face of climate disaster include limited access to internet and radio to communicate during an emergency, insufficient infrastructure for evacuation and the absence of local construction industries to rebuild afterward. Southeastern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee scored the lowest collectively in the U.S.

Those counties with higher social cohesion, levels of education and natural resource conservation are predicted to fare much better. The Pacific Northwest was determined most resilient to the changing climate, with region one of the U.S., including Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island following close behind.

The report’s authors suggest that index’s information be used to determine where climate mitigation resources are allocated in the future. However, it is unlikely that the current administration will use the information to inform any real climate policy.

Dr. James DeWeese is a research analyst studying on climate resilience at the World Resources Institute and was not involved in this study. He said to the Pacific Standard, “Whatever happens, I definitely think the CRSI is something innovative. I haven’t seen much else like it.”

The executive summary and full report can be found here.

Extreme weather events more likely even if climate change is curtailed


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Parched soil in Illinois during the 2012 drought. (Thought Quotient/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 22, 2017

A study recently published in the journal Science Advances found that even if global climate change mitigation goals are met, extreme weather events will still occur more frequently in the future.

The United Nations Paris Climate Accord aims to keep global temperatures from increasing more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Even if the global community succeeds, human-induced climate change has already made extreme heatwaves, floods and droughts significantly more common.

Unfortunately, scientists say that the existing emission-reduction pledges by the world’s nations are not enough to keep temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. The study finds that if temperatures were to rise to 3 degrees hotter than preindustrial levels, North America would see at least a 300 percent increase in extreme weather events, for example.

Dr. Noah Diffenbaugh is a climate scientist at Stanford University and the study’s lead author. He said to the Scientific American, “In addition to not meeting the global temperature target, those commitments also imply substantial increase in the probability of record-setting events. Not only hot events but wet events, and also in other regions of the world, dry events as well.”

The study found that extreme heat records are the most likely to be affected by unabated climate change. Scientists focused primarily on North America, Western Europe and East Asia. They found that hotter-than-ever night time temperatures have been occurring much more frequently in recent years. If the climate warms to the 3 degree threshold, extreme heat events are expected to happen five times more frequently in half of Europe and at least three times more frequently in parts of Eastern Asia.

The study reads, “However, even if cumulative emissions are sufficiently constrained to ensure that global warming is held to 1° to 2°C, many areas are still likely to experience substantial increases in the probability of unprecedented [extreme weather] events.”

An interactive map created by researchers at Carbon Brief allows user to see which past extreme weather events can were cause by anthropogenic climate change and which were not.

More mudslides possible for southern California


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Rescue workers wade through debris and sediment following last week’s mudslide in Santa Barbara county, California. (Associated Press/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Jenna Ladd | January 17, 2018

Meteorologists warn that rainfall during the fourth week of January could trigger another mudslide in southern California, where residents of Santa Barbara county are still reeling from last week’s massive landslide. Between two and five inches fell in the county between January 8th and 9th, sending boulders and thick sediment raining down on Montecito, California. A recent wildfire in the area left mountain slopes without vegetation to slow down the runoff and played into the destruction of 115 homes and the death of at least 20 people.

Jonathan Godt of the U.S. Geological Survey told the New York Times, “It was pretty rare, in essence a worse-case scenario from that standpoint. The same rainfall that falls on a burned landscape can cause a lot more damage than it would before a fire.”

AccuWeather officials have predicted that a shift in the jet stream will bring more moisture from the Pacific Ocean into southern California’s atmosphere by January 23rd and 24th. They caution that the weather pattern presents the risk for “locally heavy rainfall, flash flooding and a significant risk of mudslides.” Their report states that areas surrounding Point Conception, California are most likely to be affected.

February and March are heavy precipitation months for Santa Barbara county, and following California’s record-setting year for wildfires, conditions are right for faster-moving and more destructive landslides.

AccuWeather meteorologist Evan Duffey said, “People need to leave the area by evacuation deadlines as they are given. Once a mudslide begins, there may only be minutes to seconds before a neighborhood is wiped out.”

New study finds relationship between climate and personality


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Individuals that are from areas with harsh weather in the U.S., like Montana, are known to have more individualistic personality characteristics. (Laurent Lebols/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 28, 2017

A recently published study in the journal Nature Human Behavior found that humans’ personalities are shaped by the temperatures where they live. Existing research confirms that human personality varies geographically, but it is unclear why exactly that is. The study’s leading author Lei Wang, a social and cultural psychologist at Peking University in Beijing, posits that temperature could play a big role because the conditions outside influence people’s habits.

Lei Wang and his team of researchers conducted two separate studies, one in China and one in the U.S., comparing the personality characteristics of people that live in areas with mild climates and those that live in regions with harsh climates. The study examined data from 5,500 people from 59 Chinese cities and from about 1.66 million people from about 12,500 ZIP codes in the United States, using data from personality assessments and average temperatures of regions where they grew up.

Regardless of gender, age, sex, or income, people from regions with temperatures that were mild were more agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, extroverted and open to new experiences. These findings were true in both countries. However, people living in harsher weather regions in the U.S. and China had generally different personality types. Those that resided in harsher weather zones such as Heilongjiang, Xinjiang and Shandong had more collectivist personality traits than their fellow Chinese from more temperate climates. In the U.S., people who live in harsher climates like Montana and Minnesota generally have more individualistic personality traits than those that live in more mild climates.

The study’s authors call for more research on the topic but also point out, “as climate change continues across the world, we may also observe [associated] changes in human personality. Of course, questions about the size and extent of these changes await future investigation.”

 

On The Radio – September brings record heat worldwide


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Temperatures in Kuwait reached 123 degrees Fahrenheit on September 3rd, 2017. (flickr/Lindsay Silveira)
Jenna Ladd | November 27, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how September 2017 set high heat records all over the world. 

Transcript: September 2017 was the planet’s fourth warmest September since record-keeping began in 1880.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Warmer-than-usual temperatures were recorded across most of the world’s land and ocean surfaces during September this year, despite the absence of an El Niño effect. El Niño events typically bring warmer weather because they cause the ocean to release warm air into the atmosphere. September 2015 is the warmest on record, with September 2016 and 2014 trailing close behind.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s September global climate report noted record high temperatures in many of the world’s oceans and in parts of Africa and Asia. The hottest temperature in the Southern Hemisphere was 109 degrees Fahrenheit on September 27th in Birdsville, Australia. In the northern hemisphere, temperatures soared to 123 degrees Fahrenheit on September 3rd in Mitribah, Kuwait.

So far, 2017 is on track to become the second hottest year on NOAA’S 138-year record.

For more information and to read the September global climate report in full, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.