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Weather Wars: Will unnatral disasters bankrupt the empire?
Global warming alone did not cause two of recorded historys most intense Atlantic hurricanesKatrina and Ritain 2005. Nothing is caused by one factor alone, and no weather disaster in our time is entirely natural, given humankinds enormous footprint on the planet.
New Orleans will recover, we are told. A proportion of its people surely will return. The hard truth, however, is that in a time when the land under the city is sinking and the Gulf of Mexico is slowly rising, as hurricanes intensify over warmer water, an ambitious plan to rebuild New Orleans on its present site at enormous cost may be urban suicide.
The rest of the Gulf of Mexico will recover as well, to be ready for the next dose of a new environmental reality. Galveston has done it before: in 1900, a Category 4 hurricane forced a storm surge across the same island, killing 6,000 to 12,000 people who had not been warned. Hurricanes are not new, of course. Skeptics of global warming will remind us of this evident fact. What is new is the frequency of intense storms, as well as the weakness of natural defenses, such as barrier islands, along the coastlines.
New Orleans is our times first truly mass casualty of climate change in the United States, killing more than 1,000 people and creating environmental refugees in the hundreds of thousands. We should learn from this disaster. It will not be the last.
Why, in a centuries-old city, has a hurricane caused such death and chaos this year? New Orleans and the rest of the central Gulf of Mexico coast have experienced many hurricanes, some of them very severe, including Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969. Reasons are many, and global warming is only part of New Orleans urban autopsy.
Global warming is an important factor, however. As ice melts around the world, sea levels are slowly rising. Warmer water also expands and occupies more space. In addition, hurricanes are heat engines. They live and die according to the warmth of the water over which they move. One important reason why Katrina blew up so quickly into the second most intense hurricane in U.S. history was the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico, 88 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Water temperatures vary for reasons other than global warming. Atlantic hurricanes intensify in 20 to 30 year cycles, following changes in water temperature. We are presently in the active phase of such a cycle, compounded by generally rising air temperatures. Thus, the number and intensity of hurricanes over Florida and the Gulf Coast states has been unusually high during the past several years.
In addition to cycles in hurricane activity and warming temperatures, the coastline marshes of the Mississippi Delta that once afforded New Orleans and neighboring areas some protection have been subsiding for decades, mainly because water and oil have been pumped out of the ground, but also because the oil industry has laced the area with transportation canals. Each hurricanes landfall accelerates the advance of the ocean.
The combined effects of sea-level rise and land subsidence along
the Louisiana coast have been grist for many warnings over the past
several years. Many scientific studies have asserted that sea levels
may rise between 8 and 20 inches during the 21st century. Adding
sea-level rise to ground subsidence, coastal residents in this area
can expect a net sea-level rise of 15 to 44 inches during the next
If nature was a novelist, the compounding ironies of the weather wars couldnt get any sharper. A large proportion of U.S. oil-refining capacity has been built in and between New Orleans and Houston, the areas hardest hit by Katrina and Rita. This area lives by oil andgiven the unfolding nature of rising seas and subsiding landmay die by it. In the meantime, the government is run by oil-related interests unable to see into a viable energy future.
Bush and his base stand to gain from expensive oil, even as most other people lose. In the longer run, on the far horizon of history (in that land about which Bush does not care because Ill be dead then) heand wewill be in the same position as people who bought stock in blacksmitheries 125 years ago, at the dawn of the fossil fuel age. Oil as a source of energy has become environmentally obsolete. It is a threat to our national security in a most fundamental sense.
In addition to national security concerns, by burning oil and other fossil fuels we are raising the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to levels not seen since the days of the dinosaurs. Year upon year, accelerating feedbacks in the atmosphere (such as gasification of carbon and methane from melting permafrost in the rapidly warming Arctic) will be more obvious than today. Additionally, the atmosphere takes about 50 years to express fossil-fuel combustion in any given period. Thus, todays temperatures reflect consumption in, roughly, 1960. Since then, world fossil-fuel consumption has increased about 500 percent.
Thus, if we think the weather is rough now, wait 50 years. As the atmosphere warms, storms generally become more explosive. Warmer air holds more water vapor and allows for more intense storm development. This has been true for tornadoes as well as hurricanes. About 110 miles southwest of Omaha, for example, the largest tornado on record (two miles across) wiped the town of Hallam off the map during May 2004. The same area also now owns bragging rights to the largest recorded hail, between the size of a softball and a cantaloupe.
Hurricanes and Global Warming
The relationship (or lack thereof) between hurricane intensity and warming atmospheric temperatures is complicated by the fact that water temperatures (like air temperatures) sometimes vary, over periods of several decades, along with the long-term trend signal provoked by greenhouse-gas levels. For example, water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, which produces nearly all the hurricanes that have an impact on the United States, have been rising steadily since the 1970s, paralleling a general global rise in air temperatures.
Frequency and intensity of hurricanes (as well as the number hitting U.S. coastlines and inflicting major damage) also have been rising during the same period. Any study that takes the record back to the 1970s indicates a very tight relationship between ocean warming, hurricane intensity, and air temperatures. However, during the 1950s and 1960s, air temperatures were generally cooler than during the 1970s, but water temperatures and hurricane intensity were higher again, on average. By 2005 this divergence was fueling a testy debate between some hurricane experts regarding whether, and to what degree, hurricane intensity and frequency was related to the overall warming trend. This debate often spilled over into the public realm as Florida and surrounding areas were smacked by four major hurricanes in 2004 and as the 2005 hurricane season set records for the number of named storms in July.
A study published in Nature, August 4, 2005, indicated that
the dissipation of power of Atlantic hurricanes had
more than doubled in the previous 30 years, with a dramatic spike
since 1995, with global warming and other variations in ocean temperatures
working together. The study, by Massachusetts Institute of Technology
climate scientist Kerry Emanuel, was the first to indicate a statistical
relationship between rising sea-surface temperatures and storm intensity.
The trend reflects longer storm lifetimes and greater intensities,
both of which Emanuel associates with increasing sea-surface temperatures.
The large upswing in the last decade is unprecedented and
probably reflects the effect of global warming. My results suggest
that future warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical cyclone
destructive potential andtaking into account an increasing
coastal populationa substantial increase in hurricane-related
losses in the 21st century, Emanuel wrote.
During the summer of 2004, Florida and adjacent areas were hit by four major hurricanes (Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne) within six weeks, as speculation mounted regarding the storms possible relationship with global warming. Each of these hurricanes ranked in the top ten such storms to hit the United States in terms of insurance losses, until they were surpassed by Katrina and Rita.
Another study reached similar conclusions. By the 2080s warmer seas could cause an average hurricane to intensify about an extra half step on the Saffir- Simpson scale, according to a study conducted on supercomputers at the Commerce Departments Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey. The same study anticipates that rainfall up to 60 miles from a hurricanes core could be nearly 20 percent heavier. This study is significant because it used half a dozen computer simulations of global climate devised by separate groups at institutions around the world.
Thomas R. Knutson and Robert E. Tuleyas models indicate that, assuming sea-surface temperature increases of 0.8 to 2.4 degrees Celsius, hurricanes could become 14 percent more intense (based on central pressure), with a 6 percent increase in maximum wind speeds and an 18 percent rise in average precipitation rates within 100 kilometers of storm centers.
During late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina tested the emergency preparation modeling for New Orleans and the rest of the Central Gulf coast with 150 mile-an-hour winds, a storm surge as high as 30 feet, and the second-lowest barometric-pressure reading in U.S. history.
By August 30, two days after Katrina came ashore over Gulfport, Mississippi, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was calling its landfall the most significant natural disaster in the history of the United States80 percent of New Orleans was under water and the city had no power, no drinking water, and no place to bury the uncounted dead. Along the Gulf Coast, in and near Biloxi, Gulfport, and Mobile, a 30-foot storm surge turned entire beachfront towns into piles of broken bricks and kindling. The fetid, humid heat was turning what remained into a stinking health hazard. The storm surge wiped away the town of Waveland, Mississippi, 50 miles northeast of New Orleans. Large parts of Biloxi, Gulfport, and other coastal cities and towns suffered damage on an apocalyptic scale. Five million people lost power, many of them for several weeks. The worst-case scenarios paled beside reality.
Its Becoming Apocalyptic
Tim Wagner, Nebraska State Insurance commissioner, in an interview in the Omaha World-Herald three days after Katrina hit, said that global warming is causing weather- related disasters to be more severe and more frequent. Its scary, he said. Its becoming apocalyptic.
On Saturday, September 3, the sixth day after the storms landfall, the Associated Press reported: By mid-afternoon, only pockets of stragglers remained in the streets around the convention center, and New Orleans paramedics began carting away the dead. A once-vibrant city of 480,000 people, overtaken just days ago by floods, looting, rape and arson, was now an empty sodden tomb. The New York Times reported: Seven days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans known as Americas vibrant capital of jazz and gala Mardi Gras celebrations was gone. In its place was a partly submerged city of abandoned homes and ruined businesses, of bodies in attics or floating in deserted streets, of misery that had driven most of its nearly 500,000 residents into a diaspora of biblical proportions . Officials warned of an impossible future in a destroyed city without food, water, power or other necessities, only the specter of cholera, typhoid or mosquitoes carrying malaria or the West Nile virus.
Years before, scientists in the area had modeled the same situation in an exercise they called Hurricane Pam. They had known that New Orleans would flood with massive loss of life, but the gruesome nature of the reality had escaped even them.
Two and a half weeks after Katrina struck, President George W. Bush stood in the French Quarter and told a national television audience that his government, which had been severely criticized for its tardy response to the storm, would do what it takes to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the devastated Gulf Coast. Estimates of the cost at the time ranged up to $200 billion.
The next day, in Science, another study linked rising water temperatures directly to the number, duration, and intensity of hurricanes. The researchers, led by Peter J. Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology, found that the number of storms in the two most powerful categories, 4 and 5, had risen to an average of 18 a year worldwide since 1990, up from 11 in the 1970s. There was no increase in the number of storms, the researchers said, just in their intensity. The rise in intensity coincided with an increase of nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit in the surfaces of tropical seas around the world.
The United States has fallen behind much of the rest of the world in realizing that our energy paradigm must change during this century. Even today, most families in Denmark have a share in a wind turbine. The European Union taxes any gasoline engine larger than two liters very heavily. Wind and solar energy are serious business in Europe. Will the United States refuse to recognize environmental realities? If we do, we will be emulating the people of Easter Island, who built a high culture on a wood-based economy and (as described by Jared Diamond in his recent book Collapse) consumed their islands every last tree. We owe future generations better than that.
Bruce E. Johansen, professor of communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is author of Global Warming in the 21st Century (Praeger, 2006).
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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