Names for the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season

Today is the first day of the Atlantic Hurricane Season. Although one named storm, Alberto, already formed this year, the season officially runs from June 1 to November 30.

Since 1950, each tropical storm or hurricane to form in the Atlantic has been given a unique name. They come from a set of six rotating lists produced by the World Meteorological Organization. A name is retired only when a storm was particularly noteworthy – causing a large number of fatalities or an extraordinary amount of damage. Some notable retired Atlantic Basin storm names include: Andrew, Harvey, Irma, Irene, Katrina, Maria, and Sandy. The names for this year’s storms are listed below.

Credit: NOAA

2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook: Average to Above Average

The number of hurricanes that develop in the Atlantic basin varies from year to year. For 2018, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting an average to above average season.

Tropical cyclones, known as hurricanes in the United States, develop around the globe at different times of the year. In this country, we are most impacted by the Atlantic hurricane season, which affects the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. It runs from June 1 through November 30.

Overall, NOAA predicts a 70% likelihood of ten to sixteen named storms forming this season, of which five to nine could become hurricanes, including one to four major hurricanes. An average season produces twelve named storms, including six hurricanes and three that become major hurricanes. A major hurricane is one that is rated category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

This outlook, according to NOAA, is based on the possibility of the development of a weak El Niño and near-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic. El Niño conditions in the Pacific tend to cause increased wind shear in the Atlantic, which suppresses tropical development in that basin.

Last year, 2017, was the most active Atlantic Hurricane season in more than a decade.  It produced seventeen named storms, including Harvey, Irma, and Maria. But regardless of the number of storms that actually form this year, it is important to remember that it only takes one land-falling system in your community to make it an impactful season.

Source: NOAA

 

Red, Blue, and Green: The Environment Was Not Always a Polarized Issue

Earth Day is a time to focus on the environment. These days, however, it is hard to discuss the topic in the US without politics coming into play. While there have always been debates about land and resource uses, the issue today is more polarized then ever with the division almost always running down party lines. Those in favor of environmental protection and conservation are usually Democrats and those pushing for economic and commercial development tend to be Republicans. This type of tribal divide, however, was not always the case. There is a long history of Republicans taking action to protect the environment.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, signed the Yosemite Land Grant. This piece of legislation gave Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. Championed by Senator John Conness (R-CA), it was first time in US history that land was designated for preservation and public use.

This historic legislation set the precedent for Yellowstone, which spreads across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to become this country’s first official National Park in 1872. Established by Congress, it was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican.  Yosemite eventually also became a National Park in 1890 under President Benjamin Harrison, also a Republican.

Coming into office in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican from NY, became known as the “Conservation President.” Using the power of the presidency, he protected approximately 230 million acres of public land. According to the NPS, this included the establishment of 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.

While also steadfast in his belief about utilizing the country’s natural resources, he understood the necessity of ensuring their sustainability. As such, he created the US Forest Service in 1905 as a division of the Department of Agriculture. He wanted to conserve forests for continued use.

By 1916, there were 35 National Parks and monuments across the US. To manage them all, President Woodrow Wilson – a Democrat – signed the Organics Act, creating the National Parks Service as a bureau within the Department of the Interior.

In the 1970’s, the environment returned to the national agenda, but with a new focus. After the 1969 Cuyahoga River fiire and the oil spill off Santa Barbara, CA, the rampant industrial pollution and deterioration of the nation’s natural environment became apparent. These human-caused disasters occurred around the same time as the publication of Earth Rise, a photograph taken by NASA astronaut William Anders as he looked back toward the planet. The image was a powerful reminder of how also fragile and unique the Earth really is. Together, these events led to the first Earth Day in 1970, where millions of people across the US came out to demand protection for the environment. As a result, President Richard Nixon – a Republican  – created the EPA. Soon afterwards, his administration passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

By the 1980’s, the hole in the ozone became an international environmental concern because of the adverse effects it could have on human health and the environment. Under the UN’s Montreal Protocol, governments around the globe agreed to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. When released into the atmosphere, these gases, formerly found in aerosol spray cans and refrigerants, reduced the ozone’s capacity to absorb ultraviolet radiation. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, signed the international agreement in 1988.

In the 1990s, climate change was beginning to be recognized as a serious environmental problem.  To address this issue, the UN organized the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, President George HW Bush – a Republican – signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This international environmental treaty was the first step on the long and often bumpy road toward the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.

The current Republican administration, however, has called climate change a “hoax”. It has announced plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and is rolling back the nation’s Clean Power Plan. So, it is safe to say that the Republican Party has been stepping back from its green legacy in recent years. In fact, we often hear Republican politicians and pundits say things like environmental regulation is detrimental to the economy.

History, however, has shown this argument to be largely false. In the past, some people saw National Parks as government land grabs that would hinder development. Today, they are among the most beloved landscapes in the country. They also generate millions of dollars every year from tourism for the local businesses that surround them. Regulations for clean air and water also had many positive outcomes. Not the least of which are the improved health of millions of Americans and the reclamation of polluted areas now open to new uses and clean sustainable development.

The lessons of history are clear. So, why is there such a polarized divide in this country over environmental issues? Who is benefiting from this rift? These are some important questions to consider not just on Earth Day, but everyday. After all, as the saying goes, everyday is Earth Day.

Earth Rise. Credit: William Anders/NASA

Why Heavy Rain Events are Becoming More Common

Torrential rain events and the flooding they cause are nothing new. Global warming, however, is helping to make them more likely.

Heavy rainfall trends in NYC. Credit: Climate Central

According to the most recent National Climate Assessment, heavy precipitation events have increased in both frequency and intensity across the United States. While there are seasonal variations with different regions, the greatest increases have been observed in the northeast.

Climate scientists attribute this increase in heavy precipitation to our warming world. As greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere, the air is able to hold more water vapor. More specifically, according to the Clausius–Clapeyron relation, for every increase of 1°F, the saturation level of the atmosphere increases by about 4%. That means there is more evaporation from oceans, rivers, and lakes, and therefore more water vapor available to condense and fall as precipitation.

Heavy rain events have a number of consequences, including an increased risk of both flash floods and river floods. This, in turn, is a threat to life and property. Over the long-term, it also affects insurance rates and property values. According to NOAA, individual billion-dollar flooding events (excluding tropical cyclones) in the U.S. have added up to $39 billion in losses since 2010.

As our global temperature continues to rise, experts say we should expect to see more extreme rain events, even in areas where overall precipitation is projected to decrease. In other words, when it rains, it will likely pour.

Downpours have been getting more frequent and intense across the US. Credit: Climate Central and NCA4

Hurricane Names Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate Retired

There will never be another hurricane by the name of Harvey, Irma, Maria, or Nate. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has announced that it is officially retiring these names from its list of Atlantic cyclones.

The WMO is responsible for naming tropical storms and hurricanes around the world.  It maintains a set of six rotating lists for each hurricane-prone region. After a six-year cycle, names are re-used.  Names are only retired when a storm was particularly noteworthy – causing a large number of fatalities or an extraordinary amount of damage.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was brutal, but four storms were particularly destructive. Hurricane Harvey, a category-4 storm, made landfall in Texas and dumped a record-breaking amount of rain in the Houston area, unleashing catastrophic flooding. Irma clobbered the Florida Keys as category-4 hurricane, but its impacts were felt throughout the entire Sunshine state. Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a high end category-4 storm and knocked out power to more than 90% of the island for months. Nate hit the US Gulf Coast as a category-1 storm, but most of its deadly impacts were felt in Central America when it was still a tropical storm.

According to the National Hurricane Center, 86 storm names have been retired since the current naming system began in 1953. This year marks the fifth time that four or more names have been retired from a single season. Three of those -1955, 1995, and 2004 – each had four names retired. In 2005, five names were retired – the most ever from one hurricane season.

Starting in 2023, when last year’s list is recycled, the names Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate will be replaced by Harold, Idalia, Margot, and Nigel. Some other notable retired Atlantic Basin storm names include: Andrew, Katrina, Irene, and Sandy.

The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1.

Four names from the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season are retired. Credit: WMO

National Drought Update: Early Spring 2018

The northeastern United States received copious amounts of precipitation from the four nor’easters that blasted the region this month. Much of the rest of the country, however, has been parched.

According to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 31% of the nation is dealing with some form of drought. While this number represents a slight improvement for California, the situation in the southern plains and the southwest has been getting worse. Parts of the Texas Panhandle, western Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas are in exceptional drought, the worst possible category.

Drought conditions have also been building in parts of the southeast. In Florida, according to the state’s Forest Service, dry conditions have fueled more than 1000 wildfires across the peninsula since the beginning of the year.

The US Drought Monitor is a weekly publication produced by a partnership of government agencies, including the National Drought Mitigation Center, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Credit: US Drought Monitor

2017: Third Warmest Year on Record in US

2017 was the third-warmest year ever recorded in the continental United States. Only 2012 and 2016 were warmer.

The average annual temperature of the lower 48 states, according to a report by NOAA’s National Centers of Environmental Information, was 54.6°F. That is 2.6°F above the 20th-century average. 2017 also marked the 21st consecutive year that the annual average temperature for the contiguous US was above its long-term norm. That means the last time the US had a normal to below normal annual temperature was 1996.

From coast to coast, for the third year in a row, every state posted an above-average annual temperature. Five states – Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, and South Carolina – had their warmest year on record. This was despite the unusually cold conditions that dominated the eastern part of the country in December.

The year was also notable for its unusual number of weather and climate disasters that each totaled more than $1 billion in damages. In all, sixteen such events collectively caused $306 billion in direct costs – a new US record. Sadly, they also claimed the lives of at least 362 people across the country. These incidents included drought, wildfire, floods, severe storms, and three major landfalling hurricanes.

The exceptional warmth of 2017 was independent of El Niño. In fact, ENSO neutral conditions prevailed for most of the year and La Niña – the cool counterpart of El Niño – developed in the autumn.

Weather records for the contiguous United States date back to 1895.

Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

La Niña is Back and Likely to Stick Around Through the Winter

La Niña, the cooler counterpart of El Niño, has returned for the second year in a row.

It is a natural event associated with the larger El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern and is marked by cooler-than-average ocean water in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. More specifically, a La Niña event is declared when sea surface temperatures in that region are at least 0.5°C below average and accompanied by a consistent atmospheric response. This includes more clouds and rain over the western Pacific and less over the central part of that basin. Stronger than average upper-level wind is also a key atmospheric indicator.

The relatively cool water associated with La Niña creates an area of high pressure over the Pacific and pushes the jet stream northward. This, in turn, affects weather patterns around the globe.

In the US, a La Niña event typically brings the southern states conditions that are warmer and drier than normal. The northern tier, on the other hand, usually experiences below average temperatures with the northwest and Great Lakes regions receiving above average precipitation.

That said, every La Niña event is different. There are also other atmospheric factors, such as blocking patterns, which can influence the weather.

According to NOAA, there is a 65%-75% chance of weak La Niña conditions continuing through the winter months.

Typical Winter La Niña jet stream pattern over North America. Credit: NOAA/Climate Prediction Center.

Massive Federal Science Report Says Humans Cause Climate Change

The Fourth US National Climate Assessment (NCA4) was released on Friday. It clearly states that climate change is real, it is happening now, and human activities are the main cause.

The first volume of the assessment – the Climate Science Special Report – says the average global temperature has increased 1.8°F (1°C) during the past 115 years (1901-2016). “This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization,” according to the report. It also says that “it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Going even further, the report concludes, “there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

With a focus on the US, the report says the average annual temperature in the contiguous forty-eight states has increased by 1.2°F (0.7°C) since 1986, relative to the previous century. It is projected to increase 2.5°F (1.4°C) by 2050.

In addition to warming, other aspects of climate change are highlighted in the massive report. One of these is sea level rise. Since 1900, the average global sea level has gone up 8 inches. Of that total, a 3-inch rise has occurred since 1993. This rate of rising, according to the report, “is greater than during any preceding century in at least 2,800 years.”

Moving forward, all projections show sea level continuing to rise. An increase of several inches is likely in the next fifteen years and 1 to 4 feet is estimated by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by the end of the century, however, “cannot be ruled out”, the report warns. This is especially true if the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica prove to be more sensitive to rising temperatures than expected. In cities along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard, where daily tidal flooding is already a problem, sea level rise is forecast to be even higher than the global average.

The report also contains details on how extreme weather is changing across the US. For example, heavy rainfall events are ”increasing in intensity and duration” nationwide with the biggest increases happening in the northeast. In the west, the incidence of large forest fires has been rising since 1980 and is expected to increase even further in the coming years. Heat waves, unsurprisingly, have also become more frequent while cold waves have become less frequent.

Looking beyond the next few decades, the NCA says the magnitude of climate change depends on the amount of greenhouse gases that are added to the atmosphere. The level of carbon dioxide in the air today has already passed 400 parts per million, a number not seen in 3 million years. If emissions are not reined in, the average global temperature could increase by as much as 9°F (5°C) by the end of this century. According to the report, “the further and the faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of unanticipated changes and impacts.”

Mandated by Congress under the Global Change Research Act of 1990, this exhaustive climate report was produced by hundreds of experts from government agencies as well as academia and was peer-reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. Published every four years, it is considered this country’s most authoritative statement on climate change.

Its findings, however, are in stark contrast to the words and actions of the Trump Administration. The President has called climate change a “hoax” and in June announced that he is withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement – an international accord that aims to reduce greenhouse gases and limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F). The US and Syria are now the only two countries not part of the historic agreement.

Global annual average temperature (left) and surface temperature change for the period 1986–2016 relative to 1901–1960. Credit: NCA4

Road Trip Highlights US Environmental History and Shows Big Changes are Possible

Last week, I was in Pittsburgh, PA to serve as a Mentor at a Climate Reality Project training event. Having never been in that part of the country before, I spent a few extra days to explore the area. The overall experience felt like a road trip through US environmental history and was a great reminder that large-scale changes are possible, especially in this era of climate policy backpedaling.

First stop: Donora, PA. This Pittsburgh suburb was the site of the “Killer Smog of 1948”. As the longtime home of the Donora Zinc Works Factory and the American Steel and Wire Plant, smoke-filled skies were not unusual here in the early part of the 20th century. In October 1948, however, the air turned deadly. An inversion layer, a weather phenomenon where the temperature in the atmosphere increases with height instead of decreasing, trapped emissions from the factories. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisonous gases created a thick, yellowish smog. It hung over the area until the weather pattern changed five days later. As a result, twenty-six people died and thousands of others became ill.

This tragedy garnered national attention and spurred federal regulations on air pollution. In 1955, Congress provided funding for pollution research and later passed the Clean Air Act of 1963. In 1970, the EPA was created and Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments, which established national air quality standards.

Donora is proud of their role in this change in national environmental policy. Outside of their local Historical Society/Smog Museum is a sign that says “Clean Air Started Here”.

Another highlight of this trip was Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeastern Ohio. Established as a National Recreation Area in 1974 and upgraded to a National Park in 2000, it reclaimed and now preserves the natural landscape along twenty-two miles of the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland, OH. While relatively small, the river is an icon of American environmental history.

Starting in the late 1800s, the river became highly industrialized. For more than a century, the steel mills and factories that lined its banks dumped untreated waste directly into the river. The Cuyahoga became so polluted that it caught on fire thirteen times.

The last time was June 22, 1969, when sparks from a passing train ignited the oil and debris floating in the water. This fire, while not the largest or deadliest in the river’s history, caught the attention of Time Magazine and became national news. Appearing in their August 1 issue, the article described the Cuyahoga as a river that “oozes rather than flows”.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, river fires were common and seen as the price of industrial progress and prosperity. By the 1960’s, however, that way of thinking was starting to change. The country was becoming more environmentally aware and the Cuyahoga River fire put a national spotlight on the need to protect waterways from industrial pollution. The event helped to galvanize the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972.

In the years since, the Cuyahoga River has made an amazing comeback. Bald Eagles – a symbolic emblem of this country – have returned to fish its waters and nest along its banks. In 1998, it was designated as an American Heritage River to recognize its historical significance.

Today, our environmental challenge is the carbon pollution that drives climate change. Its solution, as with conservation issues in the past, lies with policy adjustments. While these types of large changes can sometimes seem impossible, history reminds us that they are not. All that is required is the will to act. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

Cuyahoga River, past and present. Credit: Cleveland State University Library