TIME Environment

National Climate Report Is a Study in Extremes

A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, California.
A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The newly released National Climate Assessment grimly shows that warming is already upon us and extreme weather could become the norm

The White House pulled out all the stops for today’s rollout of the new National Climate Assessment (NCA), including making President Obama available to talk to local and national weather people about global warming. The report itself — download the whole 839-page paper here — is an incredibly impressive piece of work, detailing the current impacts and projected effects of global warming in the U.S. across a range of geographic regions and economic sectors. Even better is the government website dedicated to the NCA, which offers fascinating interactive and multimedia tools to help anyone see how climate change will affect their life, their community and their country. The entire document is much easier to understand — and much bolder — than the increasingly antiquated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments. If the U.S. were as good at stopping climate change as we are at studying it, we’d have nothing to fear.

But we’re not—and we do. It’s worth exploring the NCA on your own — start with the highlights — but what struck me is this: to understand what climate change has done and will do to the U.S., you need to understand the extremes. There’s something about the very term “global warming” that makes it seem as if climate change is something that will happen gradually and uniformly, like boiling a pot of water. The NCA finds U.S. average temperature are expected to rise 2°F (1.1°C) to 4°F (2.2°C) over the next few decades, which on the face of it can seem easy to adapt to. The difference between an 83°F (28.3°C) and an 87°F (30.6°C) summer day is barely noticeable.

But those averages can hide dramatic changes in extremes. Heat waves have become more frequent across the U.S. in recent decades, with western regions setting records in the 200s, while the number of extreme cold waves has reached the lowest level on record. The number of record low monthly temperatures has declined to the lowest level since 1911, while the number of record high temperature days has increased to the highest level since the 1930s. And that’s expected to worsen — by the end of the century, what would have previously been once-in-20-year extreme hot days are projected to occur every two or three years across much of the country.

That’s true for precipitation as well. On average, precipitation is expected to increase across the country, which makes sense — warmer air can hold more water. But increasingly that rainfall is coming in very heavy precipitation events. (That’s a once-in-20-year day of rainfall.) In the Northeast, Midwest and upper Great Plains, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events is more than 30% above the 1901–60 average. If carbon emissions keep growing, those extreme precipitation events could occur up to five times more often. Even in regions where total precipitation is expected to decrease — like the parched Southwest — what rain that does fall is more likely to fall in heavy events. “It’s not the average changes we’ll notice,” said Jerry Melillo, the chairman of the National Climate Assessment Committee, at the White House event this afternoon. “It’s the extremes.”

That’s because it’s extreme weather that really tests our resilience. A prolonged heat wave leads to a spike in electricity demand as people turn up their air conditioning, which in turn can stress out our vulnerable electrical grid, leading to brownouts and blackouts. Those who don’t have access to cooling—especially the elderly and the poor — are at direct risk for heat-related health conditions. Extreme precipitation events — like the one that struck much of the Southeast last week — can lead to devastating floods, which have been on the increase in the eastern Great Plans, parts of the Midwest and much of New England. The inland floods from Hurricane Irene were devastating for much of the Northeast, destroying farms and infrastructure. Those costs will compound over time as we keep adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The red-carpet rollout of the NCA wasn’t by accident — later this year Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will put forward regulations designed to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants. It’s in his interest to make the scientific threat of climate change crystal clear — and the NCA does that. But the science is the easy part. “We all have to come together and turn these words into actions,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan at the White House event. That’s the tough part.

TIME

Southern California Blaze Kicks Off What Could Be Especially Dangerous Wildfire Season

A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014.
A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014. David Bro—Zuma Press

Rising temperatures and a prolonged drought have prepped the Golden State for what could become one of the most severe and dangerous wildfire seasons on record, beginning with the Etiwanda Fire that firefighters have about 53 percent contained

As he looks ahead to summer, firefighter Steve Abbott is worried about the down and dead. The term refers to the dry, lifeless leaves and branches that are explosive fuel for wildfires and which are more abundant in California this year thanks to an unprecedented drought that has gripped the state. “The combination of temperatures and fuel adds to our concern,” says Abbott, one of more than 500 firefighters now battling what’s known as the Etiwanda Fire in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles.

The fire, which started on April 30, has burned about 1,600 acres and was 53 percent contained by Thursday evening. In addition to the drought conditions and temperatures that climbed above 90 in Southern California this week, fierce Santa Ana winds helped propel the blaze and prevented fire crews from fighting it from the air. Although the fire has not yet destroyed any structures, Etiwanda is effectively opening night for a wildfire season that fire officials say could be one of the most severe and dangerous on record—and a preview of what life in a hotter and drier world could be for Californians.

That’s because the Golden State is primed to burn. California is suffering through its most severe dry spell in decades, with the entire state now in some category of drought. At the beginning of May the snowpack level in the Sierra Nevada mountains—a key source of stored water—was just 18% of normal. This winter, meanwhile, was the warmest on record for the state. The drought and the heat mean that plants and trees haven’t grown as many green leaves as usual. Those leaves help trees maintain moisture—and without them, the plants are that much more likely to ignite in a blaze. And it might not even take a fire to kill some of these parched trees. “If you don’t have the vegetation receiving water, not only do you have lower humidity levels in the plants, but some of the trees will actually die,” says Carlos Guerrero, a Glendale, Calif. fire captain and a spokesman for the multi-agency unified command battling the Etiwanda Fire. Dead trees means even more fuel on the ground as the height of the summer wildfire season approaches.

Guerrero and his fellow firefighters are getting the Etiwanda blaze under control—the mandatory evacuation orders announced after the fire began on Apr. 30 were lifted by the next day. But the changing climate means that the threat from wildfires is likely to only increase in the months and the years to come, in California and in much of the rest of the West. A study published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the number of large wildfires in the West had increased by a rate of seven fires a year from 1984 to 2011, while the total area had increased at a rate of nearly 90,000 acres a year. Since 2000 more than 8 million acres have burned during six separate years. Before 2000, no year had seen 8 million acres burned. The authors connected the increase to climate change, as did the researchers behind a 2012 study in Ecosphere that predicted that global warming would likely cause more frequent wildfires in the Western U.S. within the next 30 years. Even the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the gold standard for climate science, concluded that there was high confidence that global warming was already intensifying wildfires in the West.

Climate change isn’t the only factor behind the increasing wildfires in California and the West. Successful firefighting in the past has allowed some forests to grow beyond their natural limits, ironically providing more fuel for megafires. And the number of people who have moved to areas that border wild land has increased as well. Given that most wildfires are begun by human beings—either purposefully or by accident—more people near a forest means more chances for forest fires.

For people like Mia Hidayat, who lives in a housing development near the border of the Etiwanda Fire, that means the simple sight of dry brush and bushes in her neighborhood has taken on a new danger. “I’m afraid,” says Hidayat. As California’s wildfire season grows, many others are sure to feel the same.

TIME weather

Record-Setting Rain Ravages Southern and Eastern Coasts

An emergency worker walks on the other side of the street where one car still rests precariously after a retaining wall collapsed beneath a row of vehicles in Baltimore, Maryland, April 30, 2014.
An emergency worker walks on the other side of the street where one car still rests precariously after a retaining wall collapsed beneath a row of vehicles in Baltimore, Maryland, April 30, 2014. Karl Merton Ferron—Baltimore Sun/Reuters

Rainfall connected to storms that wrought deadly tornadoes in the Midwest and South this week has tested the Gulf Coast, where some areas saw the most precipitation on record since the National Weather Service began tracking rainfall totals in 1880

Updated 12:45 p.m. ET

Record-setting rainfall pounded the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States on Tuesday and Wednesday, with even more rain looming for some parts of the Eastern Seaboard. Florida was hit particularly hard, and by Thursday afternoon, people in the Panhandle region were cleaning up as floodwaters receded.

The National Weather Service warned Wednesday of a “complex storm system” that will continue to rain down on the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast into Thursday.

In parts of the Gulf Coast, hurricane-tested residents faced unprecedented rainfall that flooded highways and washed away parts of homes. Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and warned residents to expect more flooding.

The NWS said up to 18.9 inches of rain fell over a 24-hour period in Alabama and Florida, CNN reports. The airport in Pensacola, Florida recorded 15.55 inches of rain, the highest rainfall total in a single calendar day since the NWS began tracking rainfall totals in 1880.

The rainfall in the Gulf Coast was connected to a storm system that fueled tornadoes and severe storms across the south and midsection of the country earlier this week. Those violent storms were linked to the deaths of 36 people.

The bad weather spread east as nighttime fell on Wednesday. Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport recorded 5.18 inches of rain on Wednesday, breaking a daily record, the Washington Post reports. New York City’s Central Park saw the 11th heaviest daily rainfall according to the New York Times. Flood warnings were in effect for New York City early Thursday morning.

There’s a chance of rainstorms Thursday in cities from Jacksonville, Fl. to Portland, Maine, Accuweather forecasts, while residents in the Southeast are in for even more trouble as more rain is expected Friday.

[CNN]

TIME States

Gas Explosion at Pensacola Jail Kills 2, Injures More Than 100

A gas explosion ripped through a Florida correctional facility after severe rains deluged the southeast, killing two and injuring more than 100 inmates and staff. More than 400 other inmates were transferred to jails in neighboring counties

A gas explosion at a Pensacola jail killed at least two and injured more than 100 inmates and correctional staff Wednesday night — one day after historic floodwaters devoured roads and ruined homes across the panhandle.

The explosion reportedly erupted at about 11 p.m. local time near the facility’s book center, causing part of the structure to collapse, according to the Associated Press. There’s no word if the accident was caused by the week’s heavy storms, which did flood portions of the jail.

The injured were taken to hospitals and more than 400 uninjured inmates were transferred to jails in neighboring counties.

On Wednesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in 26 counties and called on state and local agencies to respond rapidly to the needs of affected families.

“We’re continuing to work with local leaders on the ground to give them the support they need to keep families safe and get them back on their feet,” he said in a statement.

“To support our local leaders, early this morning I instructed the National Guard to deploy 24 high-water vehicles to the impacted counties to assist with rescue and recovery operations.”

At least one woman in Pensacola, Florida, died after her car was swept into a drainage ditch, according to authorities.

On Tuesday night, more than 15 in. of rain fell before midnight at Pensacola Airport — setting a new record for the rainiest single day in the area.

“We’ve seen flooding before, but never flooding that washes the back of a house away,” said CNN iReporter Matt Raybourn of Pensacola. “There are no words for what we are seeing here.”

Elsewhere in Escambia County, local officials responded to 281 emergencies while fire rescue teams answered more than 266 pleas for help on Wednesday. According to the county’s official website, the local 911 dispatch received more than 4,000 calls between the start of the emergency at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

The behemoth three-day storm system cut through large swaths of the Great Plains and South as tornadoes, hail and floods left more than 30 people dead.

TIME weather

Monster Storm Brings Record Rainfall to Southeastern U.S.

A truck is stuck in the middle of flooded Piedmont Street in the Cordova Park neighborhood after it washed out due to heavy rains on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Fla.
A truck is stuck in the middle of flooded Piedmont Street in the Cordova Park neighborhood after it washed out due to heavy rains on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Fla. Marianna Massey—Getty Images

The system that wrought devastating tornados in the Midwest and South over the last few days, leaving at least 35 people dead since Sunday, is unleashing record rainfall further east as forecasts project severe weather up to Virginia

The massive weather system that has wrought devastating tornados in the South unleashed record rainfall across the region overnight Tuesday, with forecasts projecting more severe weather in states from Florida and Alabama to Virginia.

Pensacola, Fla. reportedly suffered more than two feet of rain in a 26-hour period, according to a rain gauge owned by a local resident, as bridges were washed away and miles of highways shut across the region, stranding hundreds of drivers. About 6,000 lightning strikes were recorded in the region in just 15 minutes, NBC reports. Local officials called it the worst flooding the region had seen in 30 years.

Much of downtown Mobile, Ala. was flooded and water levels near Fish River, near Silverhill were at their highest levels in 60 years. Tuesday was Mobile’s fifth-wettest day in 143 years.

Tornado warnings were issues early Wednesday in several states, as the gargantuan weather system brought high winds and thunderstorms across the Deep South. Georgia, Alabama and Florida faced tornado alerts, with forecasters predicting the gravest tornado risks from South Carolina to Virginia.

At least 35 people have been killed in six states since Sunday.

[NBC]

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

WATCH: Weatherman Interrupts Live Broadcast to Evacuate Newsroom During Tornado

+ READ ARTICLE

When a tornado touched down in his studio’s hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, WTVA Chief Meteorologist Matt Laubhan stayed on his toes and led a newsroom evacuation in the middle of a live broadcast.

“This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak, and this could be deadly,” Laubhan says in the clip. Then he points to an area off-camera and shouts, “Basement. Now.”

Shortly after the frantic newscast, the station tweeted, “We are safe here.”

Devastating storms have been ravaging the southern U.S. for the past three days. The violent weather has killed more than 30 people, destroyed homes and businesses and left thousands without power. Officials say 11 were killed in Mississippi on Monday alone.

TIME weather

Photos: Tornadoes Tear Through the South

Several tornados have ripped through the south, including Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, adding additional lives to the death toll

TIME weather

Swarm of Tornadoes Tears Across the South

Constance Lambert embraces her dog after finding it alive when returning to her destroyed home in Tupelo, Miss., April 28, 2014.
Constance Lambert embraces her dog after finding it alive when returning to her destroyed home in Tupelo, Miss., April 28, 2014. Brad Vest—AP

Dozens of twisters across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee pushed the death toll from this week's storms to at least 35 as the system moves east

Updated 4:58 p.m. ET

At least 16 people were killed Monday as deadly tornadoes ripped through sections of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, bringing the death toll for the storm system that hit the Midwest earlier in the week to 35.

The dangerous weather was headed toward Georgia early Tuesday, after having flattened buildings in towns throughout the region, and Governor Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency.

“For about 30 seconds, it was unbelievable,” said Mississippi state Sen. Giles Ward, whose Louisville home was destroyed in the storm while he huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four kids and dog. “It’s about as awful as anything we’ve gone through.”

The storm system rumbling east across the country has slammed a huge swath of territory with dangerous weather, from Iowa south to Oklahoma and into Arkansas, which alone saw 15 deaths. An estimated 11 tornadoes hit the central U.S. Sunday and 25 ravaged the South Monday, according to a preliminary count from the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.

The storm reserved its most severe weather for Mississippi and Alabama. At least 45 injuries and six deaths were reported in Winston County, Miss., on Monday. One was a woman who died in the day care center she operated in Louisville, though it remained unclear if there were children in the center when the storm hit.

In Tupelo, Miss., every building in a two-block area was damaged when a tornado ravaged the town of about 35,000. Limestone County, Ala., suffered severe damage in the storm, which knocked out power to nearly 12,000 and killed two when a twister hit a trailer park in the small community of Coxey.

Power was out for tens of thousands of customers in the region and road crews worked to clear debris from streets Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.

[AP]

 

TIME weather

Tornadoes Trample Swath of South, Midwest

A U.S. flag sticks out the window of a damaged hot rod car in a suburban area after a tornado near Vilonia, Arkansas April 28, 2014 Carlo Allegri—Reuters

Dozens of twisters across Mississippi and Alabama pushed the death toll from this week's storms to at least 28 as rescuers search for survivors

Tornadoes have torn through the Deep South in the wake of two days of severe weather in the Midwest, killing nine and bringing the tornado-season death toll so far to at least 27.

At least five tornadoes touched down in Mississippi on Monday evening, claiming seven lives, while authorities in Alabama reported that at least two people were dead in Limestome County in the wake of several powerful spring storm cells. The severe winds have downed trees, leading to local power outages, and reportedly also destroyed a trailer park.

A tornado struck Tupelo, Miss., at around 2:45 p.m. on Monday, causing multiple injuries, the Weather Channel reports, though none were expected to be fatal.

A widespread tornado watch was put into effect across the Midwest and South on Monday night. Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee and parts of Missouri are at risk of severe weather.

The fresh spate of tornadoes comes after 18 were killed across three states on Sunday as a result of severe weather. The worst may not be over yet either: the Weather Channel reports that flooding, heavy rain and thunderstorms are expected to continue into Wednesday.

[Weather Channel]

 

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