TIME Environment

Here’s What We Can Expect From El Niño This Year

The El Niño weather phenomenon that has previously devastated the Western Pacific and parts of Australia now has a 90% chance of striking again this year.

The El Niño weather phenomenon that has previously devastated the Western Pacific and parts of Australia now has a 90% chance of striking again this year according to a recent report by the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). This weather anomaly is characterized by an unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean and has caused intense hurricanes and drought in the past. But what can we expect from the phenomenon this summer?

South Asia will likely be hit first with heavy rain and flooding. Drought conditions in Australia and a drop in the fish population off of the west coast of South America will follow. El Niño also damages the agricultural industries in countries surrounding the Pacific Ocean such as Indonesia, and the Philippines. Efforts are currently being made in some of these regions to lessen the impending impact that El Niño will have.

The results of the El Niño events in 1997-1998 were by far the worst in recent history, but unlike thunderstorms and snowstorms forecasters have little ability to predict how intense future El Niño episodes will be. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) it is also near impossible to pinpoint the exact dates that El Niño will begin.

Within the next month more details regarding El Niño and when it will begin will become clearer. In the meantime people around the world will begin to gather resources and prepare themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

TIME National Security

Climate Change Poses Growing National-Security Threat, Report Says

A new report published by the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board this week finds that climate change is a "catalyst for conflict" and a "threat multiplier," proving to be a growing threat not only to the environment but also U.S. national security

Climate change does not only threaten the environment but also U.S. national security, according to a new study.

Global warming presents the U.S. with several security threats and has led to conflicts over food and water because of droughts and extreme weather, says the report, which was written by a dozen retired American generals and published by the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board on Tuesday.

“Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States,” says the report, adding that problems will be felt “even in stable regions.”

The U.S. military should plan to help manage catastrophes and conflicts both domestically and internationally, it says, raising concerns regarding a wave of refugees fleeing rising sea levels.

“These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence,” the report states.

The authors of National Security and the Threat of Climate Change urge U.S. policymakers to act quickly. “The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay,” they say.

TIME Environment

From ‘Gale’ to ‘Inconceivable,’ Ranking Tornado Strength

Ranking tornado strength
Deadly tornadoes devastated the town of Vilonia, Arkansas on Apr. 27 Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As tornadoes blast across the southeastern U.S., a look at how officials gauge just how powerful a killer twister is

Tornado season began with a crash in the southeastern U.S. this week, where dozens of twisters ripped across Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama. At least 29 people have died in the storms — and with more tornadoes forecast as the weather system moves further east, that number will almost certainly rise.

It’s the suddenness of tornadoes, as much as their power, that accounts for the lives they take. Meteorologists can forecast when and where storms that can produce tornadoes will appear, but they can rarely give residents more than 15 minutes of warning before a twister touches down. Unlike hurricanes, which meteorologists can now track days in advance with increasing precision, tornadoes remain stubbornly unpredictable, although forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are working on ways to extend that warning time.

That unpredictability also makes it harder to assess the destructive power of a tornado in real time. Hurricane categories are based on sustained wind speeds in a storm—a Category 1 storm would have sustained winds 74-95 mph (119-153 kph), while a Category 5 storm would have sustained winds of over 157 mph (252 kmh) (“Sustained wind speeds” means the average wind speed in a storm over 10 minutes). The damage a hurricane can cause doesn’t always conform completely to categories. Superstorm Sandy, for instance, wasn’t even a Category 1 hurricane by the time it made landfall in New Jersey, but still caused more than $60 billion in damage, largely due to the size of its storm surge. But more wind generally means more danger—just ask the people of New Orleans, hit by Category 5 Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Tornado strength is assessed on a different and slower scale, after the twisters have struck. When tornadoes occur, National Weather Service (NWS) officials are dispatched to survey the damage. They also reconstruct tornadoes’ life cycles, where they touched down—and how strong they were. Tornadoes are ranked on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, developed by a Japanese-American meteorologist who, not coincidentally, got his start studying the damage caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The original Fujita scale was based primarily on the damage a tornado did, with wind speed estimated after the fact. The scale ranked tornadoes from a F0 (Gale) to an F5 (Incredible), with an unofficial F6 category that would require winds in excess of 318 mph and which goes by the name Inconceivable—accurate, since no F6 tornadoes have ever been recorded.

The Enhanced Fujita scale was adopted in 2007. It was designed to more accurately reflect the actual damage a tornado had done on the ground. The EF scale uses 28 different damage indicators, ranging from small barns to hardwood trees to shopping malls—and each of those indicators is assessed based on several different points of possible damage. A shopping mall could range from damage that is just barely visible to complete destruction of some or all of the building. There’s a large database of how strong a tornado needs to be to cause certain kinds of structural damage, so meteorologists are able to use the final damage report to go back and estimate the tornado’s wind speed at the time of touchdown. The categories range from EF0—with three-second wind gusts of 65-85 mph (104-137 kph)—to EF5, with three second gusts over 200 mph (321 kph).

We won’t know the full strength of this week’s multiple tornadoes until NWS surveyors have had a chance to measure the damage on-site. But there has already been a pair of EF3 twisters this year, striking Arkansas and North Carolina on Apr. 27, and those tornadoes may be upgraded as full damage assessments are carried out. 2014 had been shaping up to be a quiet year for tornadoes—Apr. 27 marked the end of a string of 159 days without an EF3 or above tornado, and there had been only 93 tornado reports this year through Apr. 24. That changed this week—there were 87 tornado reports on Apr. 28 alone. And while no tornado that’s hit yet looks to be as strong as the EF5 twister that devastated Moore, Oklahoma last year, the season is far from done.

TIME weather

Hurricane Forecasters Predict Calm Season in Atlantic

After a brutal winter, meteorologists in Colorado predict a mild hurricane season with just nine tropical storms—three of which will swell into hurricanes. But remember, they've gotten it wrong the past two years

Top forecasters at Colorado State University predict a calm Atlantic hurricane season this year, which may give coastal residents cause for concern if their last two annual forecasts are anything to go by.

The meteorologists’ report, used by insurance companies, emergency managers and the media to prepare for the next hurricane threats, forecasts nine tropical storms, of which only three will become hurricanes. Typically there are about 12 tropical storms and seven hurricanes a year.

But the weather forecasters haven’t done so hot in recent years: in 2012, there were nearly twice as many hurricanes as predicted. And a year later they predicted nine hurricanes and the region saw two.

And over the past 14 years, the team has been within two storms of the correct number only twice, according to a USA Today analysis. The other times they’ve typically been overly conservative, predicting fewer than the actual number seven times and more only four times. But no one ever said meteorology was a precise science.

The researchers said there is a 35% chance an Atlantic hurricane makes landfall in the U.S. during the season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

 

TIME

WATCH: Hail Breaks Glass Roof of Hong Kong Mall

A black rainstorm caused chaos as it swept over Hong Kong Sunday night

Hong Kong and Southern China got hit by biblical rain and hail Sunday evening — smashing windows, damaging property and causing the authorities to issue a black rainstorm warning, the highest such alert this year.

The dire weather canceled and delayed hundreds of departures from Hong Kong’s Airport, caused flooding in the street, shops and subway stations, and even broke the roof at the glitzy Festival Walk shopping center in Kowloon.

Seven casualties were reported in Hong Kong due to the rainstorm, and one person remains in serious condition, South China Morning Post reports. In addition, at least 16 people were killed in southern China as the same storm system passed over.

TIME natural disaster

Landslides May Be Inevitable, But They’re Not Yet Predictable

A massive landslide killed dozens in Washington
A massive landslide near Oso, Washington killed at least 16 people, with far more still missing Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images

There was plenty of warning before the deadly Washington landslide. Why didn't it help?

There was the rain. The tiny town of Oso in northwestern Washington state is used to wet weather—rain falls every other day on average—but the past few months have been positively biblical, with precipitation as much as 200% above normal. There was the geography: steep terrain composed of glacial sediment, which is a loose mix of sand, silt and boulders, the geological equivalent of a banana peel. And there was the history. Mudslides have hit the land around Oso numerous times over the past few decades, including as recently as 2006. There’s a reason that some residents used to call the area “Slide Hill.”

Yet when the earth gave way on the morning on the morning of Mar. 22, no one was ready for the scale of devastation. More than 15 million cu. yards (11.5 million cu. m), equivalent to three million dump truck loads, came tumbling down, burying nearly 50 homes in a hilly area 60 miles (97 km) northeast of Seattle. At least 16 people have died in the landslide, which covered more than a square mile (2.6 sq. km) and more than 170 people are listed as missing, even as hope of finding survivors dwindles. Even if the number of missing comes down, as officials have predicted, this will go down as one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history.

There was no shortage of warnings. As the Seattle Times reported earlier this week, a study by outside consultants had been filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 warning of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hill that collapsed on Mar. 22. A 2000 study by the engineer and geomorphologist Tracy Drury warned that future landslides would take an increasing toll because “human development of the floodplain in this area has steadily increased.” Yet while local officials claimed that residents knew of the landslide risks, there’s little evidence that much was done to try to mitigate those risks. A 1,300 ft. (396 m) “crib wall” of boom logs anchored by 9,000 lb. (4,082 kg) concrete blocks every 50 ft. (15 m) was built after the 2006 landslide. But it was helpless against the landslide. “The place was set up to be unstable,” says David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington.

But despite all that, it’s not surprising that Oso wasn’t ready when the earth collapsed. Even though they kill more than 25 Americans and cause more than $2 billion in damages each year on average, landslides are the “underappreciated natural hazard,” as Montgomery puts it. But as Andrew Freedman points out on Mashable, that’s in part because there’s no uniform, national monitoring system:

Instead, the USGS, working with the National Weather Service (NWS) and state and local agencies, has put together a “patchwork quilt” of monitoring and experimental warning programs, based upon rainfall and soil moisture and pressure measurements. One such program has been in place near Puget Sound, but did not cover the area where the March 22 landslide occurred.

This is despite the fact that landslides are the most geographically dispersed natural hazard—all 50 states face at least some mudslide risk. But the widespread nature of landslide risk is part of the reason why there is no uniform warning system, although the USGS has put together a national map that identifies high-risk zones. (Unsurprisingly, they tend to be mountainous regions like the Appalachians, the Rockies and the Pacific Coastal ranges.) While landslides as a whole are common, they occur only rarely at any given location—even places as inherently unstable as the hills above Oso can go decades between slides. And while decades of study—and a national network of radar stations—has enabled meteorologists to predict hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather with increasing precision, it is still incredibly difficult to identify when a landslide-prone hill will finally crumble. Heavy rainfall obviously plays a role, allowing water to infiltrate and loosen soil, but slides can also be triggered by earthquakes or erosion. “We can identify hazard zones, the places where you can expect a high probability of failure,” says Montgomery. “But it’s hard to say this slope will go on this particular day. We just don’t have enough data about the internal plumbing of the hillside.”

And it’s not just mountain towns that are at risk of landslides. Oregon state geologists have said that as much as 30% of metro Portland is in a high-risk zone for landslides, and a 2013 study by the University of Washington found that Seattle has some 8,000 buildings are at risk of an earthquake-induced landslide. Internationally, the danger is far greater: a 2o12 study in Geology estimated that rainfall-induced landslides alone—like the one near Oso—killed more than 32,000 people between 2004 and 2010, a massive toll, even though mudslides tend to get far less attention than earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes. Homes with a view come with danger attached, even if it’s one most people don’t know. Changing that fact might be the best way to ensure that the next major landslide is nowhere near as deadly.

TIME extreme weather

Physicist Claims Giant Walls Could Stop Tornadoes In Midwest

A storm chaser video taping a very close tornado
A storm chaser video taping a tornado in South Dakota, March 25, 2010. Carsten Peter—National Geographic/Getty Images

Tornado barriers 100 miles long and 1,000 feet high could save lives and property by stopping twisters before they begin, says Professor Rongjia Tao of Temple University in Philadelphia -- but critics aren't so sure

Three “Great Walls” built around the United States’ Tornado Alley could eliminate twisters from destroying billions of dollars in property and endangering millions of lives, a physicist has claimed.

Professor Rongjia Tao of Temple University, Philadelphia unveiled a proposal this week calling for the construction of three 1,000-foot barriers up to 100 miles long, which would act like hill ranges and soften winds before tornadoes could form, the BBC reports.

The $16.9 billion plan would call for the faux hill ranges in North Dakota, along the border between Kansas and Oklahoma, and in Texas and Louisiana, ostensibly saving billions of dollars in damage every year, Tao said. The walls would not shelter towns, he said, but instead would soften the streams of hot southern and cold northern air that form twisters when they clash in the first place.

But critics scoffed at Tao’s proposals. Leading tornado experts pointed to areas that are already protected by hill ranges the size of the barriers Tao is proposing, yet still have plenty of tornados, like parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. And even if the plan did work, it would create more problems than it would solve, scientists said, by creating catastrophic weather side effects.

“Everybody I know is of 100% agreement – this is a poorly conceived idea,” Professor Joshua Wurman of the Center for Severe Weather Research. “From what I can gather his concept of how tornadoes form is fundamentally flawed. Meteorologists cringe when they hear about ‘clashing hot and cold air’. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

TIME weather

California Rain Brings Mudslides But No Drought Relief

The Griffith Observatory is seen as clouds gather above the skyline of Downtown Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014.
The Griffith Observatory is seen as clouds gather above the skyline of Downtown Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Authorities ordered the evacuation of several communities near L.A. as torrential rains caused mudslides throughout the area. About 32,000 households were hit with power outages and slicked roads caused numerous traffic accidents

Massive rainfall in southern California unleashed a torrent of mud in the Los Angeles area Saturday, but did little to put a dent in the months-long drought that has the region thirsting for more.

The rainstorm brought eight inches of precipitation to the mountain areas around Los Angeles and three inches to the city itself, the highest rainfall levels the city has seen in years, the Associated Press reports. Officials mandated an evacuation of several communities east of Los Angeles where mudslides made roads impassable.

About 32,000 households were hit with power outages and slicked roads caused numerous traffic accidents across the city. The heavy rain led to home evacuations along certain roads in various city neighborhoods. The Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu was closed after rocks and debris covered the road.

But forecasters said there would have to be several additional storms to make any dent in the region’s historic drought. Total rainfall for the season remain 7 inches below the normal 11 inches in Los Angeles, a drought affecting every square mile in the state and costing billions of dollars.

[AP]

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