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Autumn and Winter of Discontent: A Picture of Extreme Weather Over the Past Few Months

2012_Atlantic_hurricane_season_summary_mapFollowing a summer of unusually extreme weather, October, November and December of 2012 has also given the world an unnerving snapshot of what might be the new normal in a climate-changing world. Though it is still too early to draw explicit connections between these past months’ devastating extreme weather events, and climate change, recent observations and projections suggest that increases in the frequency and intensity of such events – droughts, floods, storms – are all but assured. A chronological snapshot of some of the extreme weather events in the past few months gives a sobering sense of what sort of risks we may expect in the future. Hopefully, this difficult season will spur new and robust policies for prevention, preparation and adaptation.

October 1: As highlighted in WRI’s extreme weather timeline: “Super-Typhoon Jelawat becomes the third consecutive Western Pacific cyclone to reach super-typhoon status this year, after Bolaven in August and Sanba in September. “Super typhoon” is a term for a tropical cyclone with maximum sustained winds of at least 150 miles per hour, the equivalent of a strong Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. All three storms made landfall over Japan and affected the Korean Peninsula with heavy rain and floods. The Western Pacific hasn’t seen three consecutive super typhoons since 1997; it also occurred in 1954, 1957, 1958, and 1963.”

October 17-18: Persistent drought conditions in the western United States, coupled with high winds, created a “large dust storm across Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming, closing major highways.” Experts believe that two-three more years of drought could lead to “Dust Bowl conditions” in the farming belt.

October 22 – November 3: Hurricane Sandy started off the coast of Nicaragua and dissipated over western Pennsylvania. The storm claimed at least 71 lives in Haiti, around 129 lives in the United States alone, and has thus far been blamed for around $62 billion in damage to housing, business and infrastructure. These estimates may indeed be conservative, and the true cost of the storm may not be fully realized until all repairs, relocations and infrastructure improvements are completed.

October 23 – October 30:
Tropical storm Son-Tinh began off the coast of the southeastern Philippines, raged over Vietnam, and ended in southern China. The storm ravaged all three countries, killing at least 35 people, and causing major flooding throughout the region. According to Xinhua New Agency (as quoted by Bloomberg), the storm also did serious damage to agricultural production, and displaced a large number of people living in low-lying areas: “About 19,361 hectares of rice and 70,932 hectares of other crops were submerged by floodwaters as yesterday morning, according to the Vietnamese statement. The storm blew off the roofs of 47,400 homes. In Hainan [China], 10,900 hectares of crops were damaged, 716 houses destroyed and 126,000 people were relocated from low-lying areas, Xinhua said.”

October 26: According to IRIN, unexpected heavy rains in Somalia led to significant devastation and displacement: “More than 3,000 to 4,000 families in nine villages of Togdheer Region displaced by heavy rains last Friday [26 October ] need immediate assistance,” Abdo Aayir Osman, the governor of Togdheer Region, told IRIN by telephone from the regional capital Burao. He added that at least three people had died after their homes flooded…The floodwaters have also damaged foodstuffs in stores in Qori-Lugud District and areas such as Daba-Qabad, Tallo Buuro, Bali-Alanle and Gubato. Some 7,000 to 9,000 heads of livestock drowned, Osman said.”
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NOAA Seeking Public Input: How to Address the Satellite Gap?

As we highlighted previously, the United States is approaching an unenviable challenge: the possibility of 17 months worth of dramatically diminished weather satellite coverage (to be precise, the loss of two polar-orbiting satellites that are critical for accurate weather forecasting). This seems astonishing in the wake of such a devastating and unpredictable storm as Sandy, but the reasons for it lie in past mistakes that are not so easily, or quickly, corrected.

For this reason, as reported by Climate Central, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is seeking public input on “how to maintain the accuracy of the agency’s weather forecasts despite the loss of satellite-derived data.”

Click here for additional details, and/or to submit a comment. The deadline is 5:00 p.m. (presumably Eastern) on December 19, 2012.

Army Reserves Provide Unprecedented Support in Wake of Sandy

According to DVIDS, the 99th Regional Support Command of the Army Reserves have become the first such units “to be deployed in response to a domestic natural disaster under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.” They supported three “quartermaster teams”  in New Jersey, providing: “waste-water pumps, military vehicles, tents, heaters, generators, cold- and wet-weather gear, and rations.” Click here for the full story.

National Research Council’s Climate and Security Report Release Delayed by Sandy

As indicated in a press release from the National Academies, the release of a long-awaited study by the National Research Council titled “Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis,” has been temporarily postponed due to Hurricane Sandy. The Huffington Post reported on the rationale:

John D. Steinbruner, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and the chair of the 14-member panel of experts who conducted the analysis, said in an email message that CIA sponsors must be briefed on the report before it is publicly released.

That briefing was to occur on Tuesday, Steinbruner said, but the federal government was closed due to Sandy, a storm that many scientists suggest may have been energized in part by warmer ocean temperatures and other byproducts of global warming.

According to Steinbruner, the CIA briefing will likely be rescheduled for this week.

A Week of Storms, Floods, Loss of Life, and Tested Resilience

The unprecedented Hurricane Sandy, which hit heavily-inhabited low lying areas along the East Coast of the United States, has claimed over 110 lives, according to the most recent reports. While it is too soon for anyone to definitively claim that the storm resulted from climate change, its unusual path has raised that very question, and a number of experts are also reinforcing the simple fact that projected climatic changes, and projected rises in sea levels, will likely make these kinds of extreme events more common in the coming decades (and that places like New York City may need to permanently expand their flood zones). The hurricane has led both New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, to make strong public declarations about the need to prepare for expected climatic changes. (more…)