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More "Unnatural Disasters"
On The Horizon

By Stephen Leahy

12 January, 2006

As the new year begins, extreme weather continues to plague the United States, and experts warn this may be the "new normal" under climate change.

Wildfires have consumed hundreds of thousands of aces in drought-stricken Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico since Christmas, while floods and swollen rivers beset Northern California and Nevada. Weather records were broken throughout 2005 -- a July heat wave was the warmest ever, October rainfall was the heaviest ever in the Northeast, and the Gulf region endured the worst hurricane season ever.

And on the last day of 2005, tropical storm Zeta, a record-shattering 27th named storm, raged in the mid-Atlantic. The average is 11 named storms a year.

Four major hurricanes -- storms with winds greater than 111 mph -- struck the U.S. last year, resulting in an estimated 160 billion to 300 billion dollars in economic losses. The cost of rebuilding the city of New Orleans alone could be 200 billion dollars, according to government estimates.

And 2006 could be as bad, warn forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Centre.

"We can expect ongoing high levels of hurricane landfalls for the next decade or perhaps longer," said Gerry Bell, lead meteorologist at NOAA.

Although the U.S. generates about 25 percent of the global emissions of greenhouse gases, the George W. Bush administration has been defiant in its unwillingness to adhere to treaties that would fight global warming, like the Kyoto Protocol.

Amy Lynd Luers, a climate impacts scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.-based alliance of scientists and citizens, notes that, "These are not natural disasters, they are environmental disasters."

"Global warming is contributing to disastrous weather events like hurricanes and making them worse," Luers said in an interview. An earthquake is a true natural disaster in her view.

Although many NOAA scientists refuse to link the hyperactive hurricane season of 2005 to global warming, a number of research studies have established that hurricane and cyclone intensity have increased as global average temperatures have risen.

Moreover, in the late 1990s, a series of studies on the possible impacts of climate change by the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change predicted heavier rainfall in the northeast, and a long-term drought in the southwest and plains region.

Climate science has proven that as emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels have risen, more of the sun's heat is trapped in the atmosphere. That extra solar heat has raised the average global temperature about 0.7C in the past 150 years. Since heat is a form of energy, the additional heat has made the world's climatic system more energetic.

With global warming, weather-related disasters -- floods, fires wind damage -- are expected to be more intense, says Luers, who works with the State of California to anticipate the local impacts of climate change. Those impacts are dire enough for California to act and set strong emission standards.

"California realises that reducing emissions will not damage their economy," she said.

Equally important, the state believes it can be a leader and profit from finding ways to move toward a low-carbon emission economy, she added.

The National Assessment should have issued new outlooks on global warming for the nine regions of the country by now. But that important work is no longer being done. The Bush administration redirected the National Assessment away from regional impact studies, says Leurs.

"There is considerable concern among scientists about the need for these," she noted.

Some states, like California, now foot the bill for preparing their own. And so do some U.S. corporations. At the vanguard are insurance companies.

The U.S. -- and other parts of the world -- could be about 10 years into a 20- to 40-year cycle of increased hurricane activity, with the worst years yet to come, Andrew Castaldi, head of catastrophe and perils for Swiss Re Americas, has been reported as saying.

Castaldi sees 2006 as "another bad year" for hurricanes, with Swiss Re predicting 2.3 major storms hitting the U.S.

Hurricane Katrina was the worst U.S. natural or environmental disaster ever, and a new analysis of the storm by NOAA's National Hurricane Centre released in late December reveals some chilling, overlooked details. Perhaps most stunning of those is that more than 4,000 people are still missing nearly four months after Katrina's landfall in late August. The official death toll is 1,336 people.

But the most worrisome is that Katrina was not a particularly powerful storm on landfall. While it was of Category 5 strength briefly while out in the Gulf of Mexico, new data reveals that its winds were in the Category 1 or 2 class when it struck New Orleans.

What Katrina did generate was an enormous storm surge topping 27 feet, sweeping inland some six miles in places. Katrina's "tsunami" is what resulted in the flooding of 80 percent of New Orleans, and massive destruction along the Gulf Coast.

Such storm surges are bound to worsen with rising sea levels.

Giant ice sheets like those in Greenland are melting faster than ever, says Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Penn State.

"If we burn all the fossil fuels there are, the Greenland ice sheet will melt, raising sea levels 23 feet or so around the world," Alley said in an interview.

That won't happen in decades -- it would be more like hundreds of years, he explains.

However, this year's emissions of greenhouse gases guarantee even higher sea levels in the next decade or two. While that may seem a long way off to those worried about this year's environmental disasters, it will take decades to develop new technologies to wean the world off of fossil fuels, says Alley.

"And that's if we start now. We have to be in this for the long haul," he said.

Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service









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