Posted by: JohnnyRook | January 25, 2009

Don’t Worry When the Roof Blows Off Your House…

It can’t be linked directly to global warming.

I hope that makes you and all those folks in France and Spain that lived through yesterday’s storm, feel better. I’ll be talking about them a little latter in this post.

Scientists agree that no particular weather event can be linked directly to global warming. Nonetheless, taken collectively, Extreme Weather Events, have increased and are predicted to continue to increase at a statistically significant rate.

As Nature explains:

… scientists have come up with the firmest evidence so far that global warming will significantly increase the intensity of the most extreme storms worldwide.

The maximum wind speeds of the strongest tropical cyclones have increased significantly since 1981, according to research published in Nature this week. And the upward trend, thought to be driven by rising ocean temperatures, is unlikely to stop at any time soon.

The team statistically analysed satellite-derived data of cyclone wind speeds. Although there was hardly any increase in the average number or intensity of all storms, the team found a significant shift in distribution towards stronger storms that wreak the greatest havoc. This meant that, overall, there were more storms with a maximum wind speed exceeding 210 kilometres per hour (category 4 and 5 storms on the Saffir–Simpson scale)….

“It’ll be pretty hard now for anyone to claim that cyclone activity has not increased,” says Judith Curry, an atmospheric researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who was not involved in the study….

“People should now stop saying ‘who cares, storm activity is just a few per cent up’,” says Curry. “It’s the strongest storms that matter most.”

Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, points out other problems related to extreme weather.

As temperatures increase and continental rainfall also gets warmer, waterborne diseases will flourish and without major infrastructure upgrades, our exposure to the diseases will likewise grow.

Simply from increased frequency and severity of torrential downpours, disease will be able to attack us from a growing number of fronts – at the beach, in our drinking water, from our sewers, in seafood, after a mosquito bite. The WaPo article focuses on how urban infrastructure systems are not prepared to handle the weather forecast – the rains will overflow sewer systems and threaten to mix sewage, storm water, and drinking water.

The article reports, “From 1948 to 1994, heavy rainfall was correlated with more than half of the nation’s outbreaks of waterborne illness, according to a 1991 study commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency.” The article’s examples include:

# In one of the worst, torrential rains in Milwaukee in 1993 triggered a sewage release that exposed 403,000 people to cryptosporidium, a protozoan parasite transmitted in fecal matter. Fifty-four people died.
# On Ohio’s South Bass Island in Lake Erie in the summer of 2004, at least 1,450 residents and tourists suffered gastrointestinal illnesses linked to several months of above-average rains that contaminated the town’s drinking water.
# On Sept. 13, during an unrelenting downpour, Chicago chose to prevent urban flooding by opening and releasing runoff containing raw sewage into Lake Michigan.

Climate-change-driven disease is at our door (and faucet). In the words of the country’s leading authority on the subject, Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School:

It will be the next few years. This is not 20 years away. It’s already occurring. The CDC is gearing up to deal with [it], but at the same time, we need to be focused on the primary driver, which is our unstable climate. We need to do all of the above — protect, prepare and prevent.

And this From Science Magazine:

Here, we use satellite observations and model simulations to examine the response of tropical precipitation events to naturally driven changes in surface temperature and atmospheric moisture content. These observations reveal a distinct link between rainfall extremes and temperature, with heavy rain events increasing during warm periods and decreasing during cold periods. Furthermore, the observed amplification of rainfall extremes is found to be larger than predicted by models, implying that projections of future changes in rainfall extremes due to anthropogenic global warming may be underestimated.

I’ve been fascinated by extreme weather event ever since I learned that that they would be made more likely and more intense by Climaticide. There is an interesting conundrum in knowing the global warming increases the likelihood of extreme weather events without being able to say this or that extreme weather event has been influenced by global warming. I do think that it is important though that we talk about global warming every time there is an extreme weather event. Without claiming that Climaticide caused the particular event we can point out to people the statistical relationship between storm numbers and intensity and climate change. We can remind them that the future that awaits us will be less predictable, with more storms of greater intensity and with more destructive power causing more material damage and loss of life.

Having just lived through an extreme weather event for the second year in a row I am intrigued by how such events will affect the public’s perception of Climaticide. So, I plan to write often about such events to highlight that the climate we took for granted is already gone. We have performed an experiment on the entire planet and the result is that we now live in the Anthropocene, the age in which humanity determines the world’s climate.

Like a teenager sitting behind the wheel of an automobile for the first time, we quite clearly don’t know how to drive very well, but we do have the keys and whether the ride from here on out is merely bumpy or ends in a fatal accident will depend on how quickly we learn to act like grown-ups.

Now let’s take a look at events in France and Spain today: The AFP is reporting that:

Rescuers in Spain and France launched a desperate operation on Sunday to clear wrecked homes, roads and power lines after hurricane-force winds killed 15 people, including four children inside a sports hall near Barcelona.

The falling roof and a wall killed four children who had taken shelter from winds that in some places roared at more than 180 kilometres (110 miles) an hour, while 20 metre (70 feet) high waves battered the Atlantic coast.

One the fiercest storms to hit Europe in more than a decade, the winds came in from the Atlantic and tore into southwest France and northern Spain ripping roofs off houses, pulling down power lines and flattening hundreds of thousands of trees.

More than 1.1 million homes in France and hundreds of thousands in Spain remained without power on Sunday. Electricity workers were brought in from Britain, Germany and Portugal to help hundreds sent from the rest of France to patch up power supplies.

A dozen helicopters were sent out to estimate the damage to the French electricity network, which the state electric company said could be worse than a hurricane which battered a wider area of France in 1999.

In Perpignan, near the French-Spanish border, the winds were recorded at 184 kilometres (114 miles) an hour.

Fallen trees hampered police and other emergency services from getting to many alerts and brought trains and bus services to a halt. Many rail routes were still cut on Sunday.

“It’s the apocalypse,” said Peio Poueyts, an official in the tourism office in the French city of Biarritz on the Atlantic coast.

In addition to the children who were killed when the roof was blown off the sports hall in which they had taken shelter causing a wall of the building to collapse on them, the BBC is reporting a number of other fatalities from the storm, which is now moving across central Italy with 85-90 km per hour winds.

In other incidents:

* In the Landes region of south-western France, near Bordeaux, a driver was killed by a falling tree, a 78-year-old man was killed by flying debris and a third man, 75, was crushed by a tree
* A woman, 73, died in France’s Gironde region when the storm cut electricity powering her breathing machine
* A woman was crushed by a door in Burgos, Spain
* A collapsing wall killed a woman and a falling tree killed a male park employee in the Barcelona area; a man, 60, was killed elsewhere in the Catalonia region
* In Galicia, a policeman was killed by a falling tree as he directed traffic in Burela and a sailor from a cargo ship died when the vessel got in trouble off the coast
* A falling wall crushed a man in Aigues de Busot, near Alicante in the south-east of Spain

Tens of thousands of homes have been left without power in Spain, while in France, 1.3 million people are without electricity.

You can get some sense of the damage by watching the video below (the music is a little over the top, but the images are interesting)

The BBC also has a good video, which unfortunately I cannot embed here. You can watch it at the following link. The opening scene of the flattened forests tree plantations is striking.

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