Harvey Floods Houston, Irma Makes History

Hurricane Harvey visited a near-biblical deluge upon Houston, dropping over 40 inches of rain on parts of the city. The situation resulted from warmer ocean waters, more moisture in the atmosphere, and Houston’s geography along with its preparedness for the disaster. Greg Laden shows hotter sea surface temperatures in the Tropics and the Gulf of Mexico allowed Harvey to gain extra strength as it formed and re-formed on its way to the United States. In another post, Greg asks if Houston’s infrastructure could have been better-prepared for this type of rainfall, suggesting that “Houston is proud of its Libertarian zoning laws” even though, as Ethan Siegel writes on Starts With a Bang, a stalled hurricane pouring down water “should be exactly what you’d expect for a city located where Houston is.”

On the other hand, while the city was swamped to the tune of perhaps $50 billion in property damage, very few people died from the catastrophe. William M. Connolley points out that global warming “made the storm stronger and pushed the rainfall up to ‘unprecedented’; but the CO2 used to make the infrastructure makes the deaths fewer.” Dozens of people are confirmed dead by Harvey’s hand, but a similar cyclone killed over 200 people in Sri Lanka and India in May.

On the heels of Harvey, Hurricane Irma swept up the Caribbean islands and on to Florida, causing more tens of billions of dollars in damage but failing to precipitate the doomsday scenario that many in the media foresaw. On Stoat, William M. Connolley asks if there’s any way to prove a relationship between global warming and these hurricanes, and offers up a wager for 2018. Meanwhile, Ethan Siegel notes that Harvey and Irma mark an historical milestone, as “two Category 4 (or stronger) hurricanes made landfall in the USA in the same year for the first time.” Ethan’s stance is unequivocal: “This is not simply a bad year or an unlucky coincidence, but is an effect of a planet that has been artificially warmed by human activity.”

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Climate Change in the ‘Hood

On Class M, James Hrynyshyn shows us how climate change will benefit the economies of some U.S. counties while damaging many others. This mostly has to do with location; coastal areas and southern latitudes are more threatened, with Florida poised to suffer worst of all. James writes, “we’re not just talking about polar bears anymore. It’s now about jobs, wages, infrastructure, crime.” Meanwhile, William M. Connolley reports Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf is 12% smaller due to a giant iceberg splitting off and heading (presumably) toward Miami. Greg Laden says denial of global warming has shaped political discourse for decades, thanks to “deep pocketed one percenters and corporations harboring the unfortunate delusion that if we pretend climate change is not caused by the burning of fossil fuels, everything will be fine and they’ll keep getting rich.” But public awareness of the problem, like sea level, continues to rise.

2016: Arctic Sea Ice Hits a New Low?

Arctic sea ice appears likely to reach a record minimum extent this year; as Greg Laden says, “It is almost like the Earth is warming up or something.” The lowest extent of Arctic sea ice on record (since observations began in 1979) occurred in 2012, the second-lowest in 2007, and the third-lowest in 2015. On Stoat, William M. Connolley says it’s currently at an “all-time low for the time of year, but only just, which is better than its been for the last few months.” While the fate of the entire human race may hinge on the effects of global warming, Connolley also has $10,000 on the line. Will the extent of sea ice drop below 3.1 million square kilometers this September? And will we experience ice-free Arctic summers in the near future?

Fracked Over for Natural Gas

Research makes it increasingly clear that along with drilling for oil and mining coal, extracting natural gas from deep underground causes serious damage to the environment and to public health. On The Pump Handle, Kim Krisberg examines the contamination that may result from dumping fracking wastewater into disposal wells, writing “about 1,000 different chemicals are used in the fracking industry, with more than 100 being known or suspected endocrine disruptors.” Researchers collected water samples downstream from wells in West Virginia, and after “exposing both female and male mammalian sex hormones to the water, researchers found that the water blocked the hormones’ normal processes.” In another study, researchers found “fracking wastewater disposal wells in southern Texas are disproportionately permitted in areas with higher proportions of people of color and people living in poverty.” Meanwhile, air pollution around fracking sites may contribute to skin conditions and respiratory disease. While the science surrounding pollution from hydraulic fracturing is far from settled, many fingers point in the same direction: fracking is bad news for communities and for the planet.

At The Nation, Bill McKibben reports that unbeknownst to the EPA, “US methane emissions increased by more than 30 percent” between 2002 and 2014. The culprit? Leaky natural gas infrastructure. Although methane lingers in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide, it traps heat much more efficiently. McKibben says the true extent of methane leaked from fracking means that the rate of greenhouse gas emissions during the Obama administration has been higher than previously estimated, and could actually be increasing. Fracking is also a technology that the U.S. has pushed worldwide, and we can expect to see both its local and planetary effects multiplied many times over. As McKibben concludes, “we need to stop the fracking industry in its tracks, here and abroad.”

Well-Manicured Wastelands

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers doesn’t just want cut your grass—he wants to tear it out by the roots and leave it to rot in the sun. He quotes J. Crumpler on The Roaming Ecologist, who calls lawns “sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments […] that provide no benefits over the long term; no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage.” To make matters worse, lawnmower use adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, while beautiful bermuda grass requires a lot of H2O in a world that is increasingly insecure about water. During the depths of California’s drought—which has seen some relief from El Niño this year—many residents took a hard look at their lawns. On Significant Figures, Mathew Heberger writes, “many Californians could reduce their outdoor water use by 70% or more by landscaping with low water-use plants.” It’s not as if the alternative is a dirt patch in front of your house; there are a wide variety of plants you can grow with nutritional, ecological, and aesthetic value, that will be less of a middle finger to the planet.

Et tu, Exxon?

New reporting by Inside Climate News shows that petroleum giant Exxon knew, more than thirty years ago, that burning too much fossil fuel would cause catastrophic climate change. Comparing Exxon’s subsequent emphasis on profits over planetary health to the efforts of Big Tobacco hiding the dangers of cigarettes, PZ Myers writes “the future is going to look back on rabid capitalism as one of the damning pathologies of our history.” Now that the wider public is accepting the fact that anthropogenic global warming will transform and could destroy our way of life, Exxon is very much on the hook. Greg Laden, conducting data analysis to prove the accuracy of Exxon’s early research, asks “How surprised should we be that a major corporation would both look into and ignore, possibly even repress, the science associated with their primary activity?” While a conspiracy comes to mind, William M. Connolley is a bit more circumspect on Stoat, noting that Exxon’s research, building on well-known science, appeared in the peer-reviewed literature. Connolley writes, “confirming publically available information with other publically information available is hardly the stuff of deep dark secrets.” But with the public face of Exxon obfuscating the truth since 1989, it’s hard not to look at them as evildoers. See also: Exxon speaks.

No Rest for the Warming

Climate change denialists are apt to grasp at straws, which may explain their heralding of a global warming “hiatus” or “pause” that since 1998 has supposedly invalidated scientific consensus and its models of climate change. Clearer and more clever heads have renamed the hiatus a “faux pause,” playing off the French faux pas which means false step or blunder. For one thing, the data showed only a relative slowdown in warming, not a pause; temperatures were still increasing. As Greg Laden says, “a hiatus or a pause in global warming is at present physically impossible.” Now a new paper published in Science suggests that even the extent of the slowdown was overestimated. Furthermore, the slowdown jibes with ongoing natural variations in surface temperature, as modulated by, for example, El Niño and La Niña events, and does not contradict the long-term upward trend. Greg says that any scientist championing the “pause” is either ignorant or “willfully obfuscating the science, in an effort to distract from the reality of human caused climate change.” Meanwhile, on Stoat, William M. Connolley notes a pointed revision to the Wikipedia entry on the so-called hiatus.