Prepare Yourselves for Category Six Superstorms
By Gary Null
The year 2017 was a record-breaking year for extreme weather, home to some of the worst environmental catastrophes since records were first kept in the 19th century. Arctic temperatures climbed up to 70 degrees above normal. Many countries were baked in unusual heatwaves, killing thousands. Incidents of drought, extreme typhoons in the Pacific and hurricanes in the Atlantic, flash floods, and wildfires appeared daily in international news headlines. As recent as 2014, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) , following an analysis of NASA satellite footage of carbon dioxide movement around the planet, concluded that our warming planet has entered “unchartered territory at frightening speed.” But 2017 was also the year when the statistical figures came in for 2016. The WMO reported that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere rose at record speed. Currently CO2 is at its highest level in 800,000 years. If anyone holds any doubts that climate change is a hoax, a fictional conspiracy or fantasy, 2017 should have been a wakeup call. Now, new record-breaking extreme events, including two surprise hurricanes that razed the Carolinas, the Florida panhandle and much of Alabama and Georgia, should reinforce convictions that the days of normal weather have ended. For over a decade, scientists have warned about extreme weather events like those we are facing today, but mainstream media continues to ignore such warnings, spewing newspeak in lock-step with Washington for the sake of political correctness. However, for those who jumped on the bandwagon years ago when atmospheric and geological scientists voiced serious concerns and dire predictions about global warming, this year held no huge surprises, except for the rapid acceleration of warming trends.
Yet even after record-breaking heatwaves, wildfires and superstorms, climate change denialism continues to prevail across the US. Aside from Trump’s recent backpedaling on previous delusions that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, he still allows the world’s largest polluters off the hook by rolling back regulations that set at least some limits on greenhouse gas emissions and toxic environmental pollution. During Trump’s recent interview on 60 Minutes, he acknowledged the reality of climate change. But Trump stopped there. He continues to echo corporate and right-wing propaganda that the verdict is still out as to whether humans are the cause. Our soothsayer-in-chief claims it will all change. If there are no hurricanes next season, surely Trump will take credit for it. All will improve and there is nothing but progress and prosperity ahead regardless of how rapidly Trump’s policies bring our species closer to extinction. Our ability to reverse any climate trends will require far more than the next technological invention. It will also demand a functional government, but that remains too taboo for Washington and other nations addicted to the capitalist-growth-through-fossil-fuels mythology.
In the meantime, victims of the recent Florence and Michael hurricanes are experiencing a different reality outside the phantasmagorical bubble that now hovers around the White House compound. Hurricane Michael was the third strongest superstorm ever to strike the US mainland. Mexico Beach and Panama City on the Florida panhandle were demolished. Worse, the regions of Florida, Alabama and Georgia hardest hit by Michael are already among the US’ poorest. Many of the residents were too poor to stock up on food and other rations to carry them through the painful ordeal even if they had had the chance.
Hurricane Michael adds to the growing number of case studies for the new reality facing the Atlantic states. The superstorm’s rainfall is estimated to have been the worst in US history and the most devastating storm to hit Houston, dumping nineteen trillion gallons of water on the “capital” of America’s fossil fuel industry. For five days, torrential rains and wave surges flooded the area, shutting down and damaging oil refineries and chemical plants along Texas’ eastern coast. Over one million pounds of toxic pollutants flooded the surrounding environment and greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere. Such events fall outside the realm of computerized simulations and cannot be accurately included in predictive climate models. For this reason, scientific projections are often far more conservative than the actual state of the planet.
The severity of Michael resulted from a combination of global warming conditions that are going to accelerate more rapidly in the years ahead. In addition to a tiny low pressure system along the Yucatan peninsula, the Gulf of Mexico’s water was up to 4 degrees above normal. In the region off of Florida, temperatures were up to 8 degrees warmer. Hurricanes weaken when the deeper water pulled into their vortexes is colder. However, superstorms build speed and become stronger when less cold water is drawn in. Writing for the New York Times, Harvey Fountain summarized the triple threat exhibited by Michael that made it far more devastating along the Florida panhandle than atmospheric and oceanic scientists predicted: “More rain in larger storms on rising seas” is the new recipe ensuring more Michaels will be visiting the Atlantic coastal states more frequently in the future.
It will be a long time before life is restored to the towns and families in Michael’s path, if it happens at all. A year later, neighborhoods and towns outside Houston and Galveston are still struggling after Category 4 Hurricane Harvey drowned the Texas coastline under Trump’s watch. Texas reporters have cataloged over one hundred toxic chemical releases. One chemical plant in Baytown east of Houston spilled half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater, contaminated with benzene, butadiene and other known human carcinogens. Many tons of other industrial chemicals were also released throughout Houston’s petrochemical corridor into surrounding neighborhoods. The government failed to evacuate residents most exposed to life-threatening levels of high toxic substances. Texas Governor Greg Abbott decreed the industrial pollution was an “act of God” and therefore it could be forgiven. The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas officials completely ignored the release of dioxin, ranked as one of the most dangerous chemicals for human health by the World Health Organization. The EPA did send a single mobile air-monitoring van, but that was almost a week after the hurricane passed.
When a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits land, we are fully aware of the devastation left in its wake. Hourly we observe images of flooding, submerged cars, blown or collapsed roofs, and snapped trees on the news and weather channels. But these disturbing images don’t show the invisible feedback mechanisms fueled by humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to these superstorms’ severity and destructive potential. Nor do they depict extreme storms’ feedback loops that further contribute to the acceleration of climate change. Extreme hurricanes and typhoons create updrafts lifting moisture into the stratosphere, which begins between 8-12 miles above the Earth’s surface (higher along the equator). Not only does this moisture reduce the ozone layer, which resides in the lower stratosphere, it also carries water vapor into this higher atmospheric zone, which otherwise has very little, and it remains there longer. The largest percentage of greenhouse gases emissions our civilization releases reside in the troposphere, the layer immediately above our heads. But any gases that reach above this level will linger far longer and thereby advance the warming of the planet.
We need to get over the idea that extreme superstorms like Florence and Michael are “natural disasters” or part of some imaginary natural cycle. Since 1970, the frequency of superstorms has doubled. Kerry Emanuel is an MIT atmospheric scientist who is recognized as an international expert on superstorms. To rid ourselves of the false notion that these record-breaking climate events are simply natural, Emanuel says, “The phrase ‘natural disaster’ is an attempt to lay blame where blame really doesn’t rest.” It suggests that not only are we as individuals helpless, but so are our governments and international institutions incapable of doing anything to lessen the threat of future life-threatening climate-related catastrophes. According to over 95% of the world’s climate scientists, this belief is patently wrong.
There were a record number of devastating hurricanes in the Atlantic and Caribbean during the 2017 storm season. Hurricane Irma, which plunged Puerto Rico into darkness, was the strongest tropical storm in the Caribbean on record. George Washington University estimates that 3,000 Puerto Ricans died. As of October 2018, 1.8 million still don’t have electricity. Category 4 Hurricane Harvey leveled Houston with rising sea levels combined with the most rain dumped at any single time during a single storm in US history — five feet! The capital of America’s oil industry had more rain in a week than it usually gets in a year. The NOAA estimated the bill for damages from Harvey would be $125 billion, the second most costly storm after Katrina at $161 billion. A significant portion came from uninsured losses. The cost of Hurricane Michael will not be known until after all the structural damage and affected states’ loss in revenues is taken into account, including the demolition of Alabama’s and Georgia’s cotton and pecan crops. Early estimates from AcuWeather report it will be over $30 billion. According to the USDA, only about 15 percent of Georgia’s cotton crop and 30 percent of vegetables were harvested before the storm struck. “We lost most of this year’s (pecan) crop plus tens of thousands of acres of orchards,” wrote Jeffrey Dorfman at University of Georgia’s agricultural school, “that will take a decade to replace.” Meanwhile, Florida lost at least 3 million acres of commercial timber in addition to other agricultural commodities such as offshore shellfish aquaculture, cotton, peanuts and poultry. And Alabama, one of the nation’s poorest states, relies heavily upon its cotton industry. CNBC reported 2018 was expected to be “a record high yield,” but only about 10 percent had been harvested and a million unharvested bales are estimated to have been destroyed.
If the US government’s response to hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Katrina are any indication of what the victims of Florence and Michael can expect, they should be prepared for a rude awakening. Trump’s mobilization of FEMA and supply of aid to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico was dreadful. Reports from both NPR and PBS have concluded that Trump’s rhetoric for his Administration’s “incredible, unsung success” in handling Maria’s aftermath was at best largely exaggerated. In fact, after reviewing “hundreds of internal documents,” the news agencies determined Trump’s FEMA was in chaos.
Months after Harvey, tens of thousands of greater Houston and Galveston residents remained homeless. A year later, one out of five damaged apartments remain unrestored. Many homes are empty with for sale or rent signs or simply abandoned. The Houstonian Magazine reported that 10 months after the deluge, dioxin in water near waste pits were still abnormally high at near 70,000 parts per trillion. The EPA dictates immediate cleanups for 30 parts per trillion and higher of dioxin spillage.
And here is the take home lesson. It only requires a couple hours for a superstorm in our new extreme climate era to decimate a town, city, farm, industry and entire economy, but it can take years for a full recovery. Do we have the luxury of years before another Category 3, 4 or 5 storm razes what has been rebuilt? Climate scientists voice in unison a resounding “no.” Speaking on Good Morning America, the Texas governor told viewers, “People need to understand this is not going to be a short-term project. This is going to be a multi-year project for Texas to be able to dig out of this catastrophe.” Climate change and future storms aren’t going to wait for the feds or states to get back on a firm footing. Superstorms destroy not only homes, buildings and infrastructure; they also damage the very building blocks of survival, such as water resources, utilities, transportation, food security, and jobs. There is also the fear of dramatic soil erosion on farms, extreme rainfall, and floods that remove the organic medium enabling plants to grow and absorb CO2. This will have a direct impact upon future agricultural yields. And climate change and its associated catastrophic weather and environmental events are accelerating exponentially and faster than expected. Dr. Paul Beckwith of the University of Ottawa’s Laboratory of Paleoclimateology, an expert in tropical storms, recently stated that superstorms are behaving more erratic and unpredictably. This was certainly the case for each of the hurricanes being discussed, and it is this harsh truth people must learn to accept and adjust to. According to Beckwith, we must be prepared to see beyond the overly conservative estimates released by the IPCC. The actual state of climate change is far scarier.
Although the main media networks portrayed the 2017-2018 hurricane season as shocking, it is perfectly consistent with scientists’ warnings about the planet’s warming trends. Warmer oceans, combined with rising winds, changing jet streams, and hotter air, are a recipe for larger and more powerful storms. A couple of months after Hurricane Harvey, studies found that global warming significantly increased the odds for Harvey’s record-setting heavy rains. Asked whether we will experience a change in cyclone-like storms in the future, Professor Emmanuel stated, “we expect that Category 3, 4, and 5 storms will become more frequent globally as the climate warms…. Per-storm losses of life and property will rise.”
Our new age of superstorms has also started a debate among scientists as to whether an additional Category 6 designation is warranted. If we are fearful of another Harvey or Michael hitting Miami-Dade County’s population of 2.7 million citizens, imagine the likes of Super Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan is the highest speed hurricane, at 195 mph, to have made landfall on record. The storm was responsible for the death of over 5,000 Filipinos and displaced an additional 4 million. The strength of the storm is attributed to only a single degree warmer ocean temperature than normal. And the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean now far exceed that.
Depending upon where you live, the harsh realities of climate change will be felt differently. American coastlines, especially along the Atlantic seaboard from the Florida Keys to Boston, will experience the brunt of sea level rises. All the major cities dotted along the Atlantic are sitting ducks for extreme storms, ocean surges and increased flooding. And no major concerted effort is being made to prevent or lessen any of the impacts of higher category storms and rising tides. It is now critical to vote only for legislators who have a scientific understanding of the Anthropocene Age humanity has entered instead of clinging to religious superstitions that deny global warming is real. Until then, the best solution our Climate Denier in Chief staring clueless at his empty desk in the Oval Office can offer is, “You’re on your own now. Good luck chump, and God bless.”