There seems to be more extreme weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has produced the U.S. Climate Extremes Index. It shows extreme weather going up and down over time, but then spiking in recent years.
Before the recent Arizona disaster, there were killer tornadoes in Oklahoma, including one that grew to more than 2.5 miles in diameter. The Northeast this past winter was buried in a historic blizzard. Last fall, a hurricane named Sandy more than a thousand miles wide killed dozens of people, blacked out much of New York City and caused upward of $60 billion in damage — the costliest disaster since Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans. And last summer, two-thirds of the country was in significant drought, inciting comparisons to the Dust Bowl.
The weird-weather issue invariably gets tangled up in the “attribution problem.” The best you can do is say that X is consistent with Y. As in: The heat waves that killed thousands of people in Europe in 2003 and Russia in 2010 are consistent with anthropogenic global warming. You can note that storms such as Sandy do more damage because of higher sea levels (they’re up about a foot in the past century along New York and Washington, and a bit more in the Gulf of Mexico).
The World Meteorological Organization isn’t ready to say the weather is worse, according to a report it released last week titled “2001-2010, A Decade of Climate Extremes”:
“It is still not yet possible to make a definite link between the increase in the observed losses [from extreme weather] with an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events. Other factors come into play, such as increased vulnerability and exposure of populations and the increase in the number of reports of disasters.”
Experts use the word “exposure” a lot. We have more stuff to blow away, more houses to be flooded or crushed.
This is the argument of Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. A century ago, a hurricane could make landfall in the United States without causing significant damage, other than downed trees, he says. The meteorological record shows eight such no-damage hurricanes hitting the United States prior to 1940, according to Pielke. He says, “There’s no place a hurricane can go now without being a huge disaster.” But he adds, “We’re getting richer faster than the cost of disasters has increased.”
Munich Re reports that losses from extreme weather globally have tripled since 1980 — and nearly quintupled in North America, which accounts for 70 percent of insured losses. Peter Hoeppe, head of Geo Risks Research for Munich Re, said the surge in losses is driven primarily by the increase in exposure, but even factoring that in, the United States has seen an unusual spike in damage from “convective events” — thunderstorms and tornadoes.
Here’s Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, talking about the global economy and the burning of all those fossil fuels: “It’s like a big truck driving down the highway and it’s dropping nails out the back.”
We don’t want the truck to stop. But the nails are increasing the likelihood of multi-car pileups in the rear. Maybe it’s not such a problem if you’re rich and can afford really fancy tires.
Or a tank.
‘A bad day’
The planet is steadily being reengineered, in haphazard fashion, without an underlying blueprint or much in the way of quality control, by the one species that wields extensive technology (with all due respect to the chimpanzees who use tools to dig up a termite mound). The Holocene has given way to the Anthropocene. We passed 7 billion in population last year, and we’re heading toward 9 billion, maybe 10, before the worldwide decline in fertility in recent years bends the demographic curve back to the horizontal.
And so we await The Great Comeuppance.
Engineers who deal with risk, such as those at NASA, use a common phrase to refer to a hypothetical disaster: “a bad day.”
The Challenger explosion in 1986 was a bad day. The Columbia disaster was a bad day. The term is not an attempt to play down the tragedies; it merely recognizes that complex systems have hidden vulnerabilities. There are secret pathways for gremlins. We have to accept this as a reality of engineering and, thus, as a fact of modern life.
There will be bad days ahead. And we’ll try to be ready.