Thursday, December 31, 2015

Too Big for the News

Sunshine came softly through my window today.  After a rainy month, we're enjoying a few bright days of almost Camelot weather (to vary the song cues), when it only rains after sundown.

But as 2015 ends, other parts of America and the world haven't been so lucky, with extreme weather climaxing a year of climatic extremes. Some people have been basking in warm weirdness. But lots of people haven't been paying attention to Trump, Cosby, "the Affluenza Teen" or the myriad Kardashians.  They've been too busy dealing with flooding, tornadoes, landslides, a December forest fire in southern California, or thunderstorms of rain, snow and ice.

 A Slate story begins: This year’s holiday season has been full of extreme weather, with weird anomalies from coast to coast—like a script worthy of a Syfy network movie. The week of Christmas was the warmest on record by far for a vast stretch of the eastern United States from Texas to Maine. In Philadelphia, every single day this month has been warmer than normal—if that word even retains meaning during a month like this."

The Washington Post summarizes: "From the top of the world to near the bottom, freakish and unprecedented weather has sent temperatures soaring across the Arctic, whipped the United Kingdom with hurricane-force winds and spawned massive flooding in South America.

The same storm that slammed the southern United States with deadly tornadoes and swamped the Midwest, causing even greater loss of life, continued on to the Arctic. Sub-tropical air pulled there is now sitting over Iceland, and at what should be a deeply sub-zero North Pole, temperatures on Wednesday appeared to reach the melting point — more than 50 degrees above normal. That was warmer than Chicago."

Slate adds: At least 68 tornadoes were reported in 15 states from California to the Carolinas from Dec. 21 to Monday, the longest streak on record of December days with a tornado...One tornado in northern Mississippi on Wednesday was so strong it ripped the carpet off the floor after destroying a home. A series of tornadoes also struck Northern Texas the day after Christmas, many at night, creating horrific devastation. The worst one seems to have occurred in Garland, Texas; it was the deadliest tornado in the Dallas area—for any month—in nearly 90 years. Meteorologist Bob Henson notes that 2015 is the first year since 1875, when records began, that there have been more tornado-related deaths in December than in the entire rest of the year combined."

While hot winds swirled in parts of Texas, in another part it snowed. Areas of South America experienced some of the worst flooding in 50 years. Australia had a record heat wave.  There are deaths and devastation associated with many of these events, especially tornadoes and flooding.

There's even worse on the way. Iceland faces a rare "bomb cyclone"--one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the North Atlantic.  Heavy snows and rain in the upper Midwest swelled the Mississippi and other rivers, and the Midwestern flooding isn't over, it may end up being epic.  And all that water keeps rolling south, into the new year.

El Nino is fingered as the cause for some (but not all) of this, and that phenomenon is only starting to influence weather in many areas, including here.  NASA issued a warning Wednesday that this El Nino is very large, and is likely to cause weather chaos and damage to match or exceed any previously attributed to an El Nino year.

Some of the extreme weather however is not caused directly by El Nino but seems to be part of longer global heating patterns, such as the unusual rainfall in England, and the North Atlantic storm.  Slate:

"Unlike other recent episodes of extreme weather around the planet, this storm is probably not related to El Niño, which has limited influence in Europe. The storm will be strengthening over the exact spot that North Atlantic temperatures have been cooling over recent years, an effect that scientists have linked to a slowdown of the basin’s circulation triggered in part by melting sea ice—the same scenario that was highly dramatized in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. This year, there’s been a notable increase in the sharp contrast between this cold patch and record warm ocean temperatures in the tropical Atlantic, an effect that leads to stronger ocean storms—like this one."

But while both are clearly involved, attempts to quantify the relative causal contributions of El Nino and global heating are premature.  I read one climate expert (I think it was in an early version of the Post story that has since disappeared) who observed that we've never had a strong El Nino with climate change from global heating this advanced.  We can expected the unprecedented.

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