The back-to-back landfalls of two harrowing storms in Texas and in Florida have reignited both the scientific debate over the link between hurricanes and global warming and the political debate over what, if anything, to do to address climate change.
So far, the only Republicans willing to engage in either have been moderates or those representing low-lying coastal districts vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surges. Members of President Trump's Cabinet, such as Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, have said that “it's insensitive” to discuss the “cause and effect of these storms” in the midst of the dual disasters of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
On Thursday, President Trump, too, was dismissive of any link between climate change and hurricanes. When asked on Air Force One whether the two recent storms have changed his view on climate change, Trump told reporters: “We’ve had bigger storms than this.” He went on talk about bigger storms that he said occurred in the 1930s and 1940s.
Hurricane patterns in the Atlantic basin, which includes the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, have long been a puzzle to scientists. Even so, hurricane researchers were perplexed by Trump's comment.
“That's just not correct,” Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told me.
Parsing Trump's comment begins with trying to understand what Trump means by “bigger.”
Because he brought up the 1930s, Trump perhaps had in mind the infamous 1935 Labor Day hurricane that, like Irma, devastated the Florida Keys. That storm was recorded as having the lowest air pressure of any hurricane on record in the United States.
But there are other statistics by which hurricanes can set records. Indeed, Hurricane Harvey went down in storm annals for having more rainfall than any other hurricane in the continental United States.
And Hurricane Irma maintained Category 5 wind speeds for longer than any other hurricane for which scientists have satellite data. Jim Kossin, a hurricane scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, called the duration of Irma's high wind speeds “truly remarkable and unprecedented in the historical data.”
Other recent destructive storms were record-breakers. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 produced the largest storm surge ever observed in the United States after making landfall near New Orleans. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 had the largest diameter of any Atlantic hurricane before slamming into the Northeast.
Indeed, Trump's declaration about the size of past storms relative to Irma, at least, contradict what he tweeted while that hurricane bore down last week on Florida when he called Irma a storm “of epic proportions, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen:"
Hurricane Irma is of epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen. Be safe and get out of its way,if possible. Federal G is ready!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 8, 2017
But the occurrence alone of those superlative storms — either in 1935 or 2017 — does not answer the question of what effect the rising atmospheric and ocean temperatures have on hurricanes.
Over the past century, the Atlantic has oscillated between busy and quiet stretches. After a series of destructive storms in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Atlantic hurricane activity simmered down during the 1970s and 1980s before picking back up again after 1995, after which the Atlantic has been mostly busy.
“The President may have been referring to the fact that the 1930s-1950s were an unusually active phase for hurricane activity in the Atlantic, perhaps comparable to the one we are in now," Gabriel Vecchi, a hurricane researcher at Princeton, wrote in an email. "That is true, though we can't say with confidence, based on my read of the evidence, that the present phase is more or less active than the one in the 1930-1950s."
It's that lull in the 1970s and 1980s that has puzzled scientists, who point to as possible explanations natural shifts in large-scale ocean currents or the cooling effect of pollution in the air before the United States passed stringent environmental laws in the 1970s.
“The real anomaly is that the '70s and '80s were unusually quiet,” Emanuel said. “It's not that the '30s and '40s were unusually active.”
When it comes to the connection between these storms and the warming effect of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the air, scientists say the right question is not whether climate change causes a specific storm. The better question is whether climate-related factors can make hurricanes such as Harvey or Irma worse.
On that front, climates scientists generally agree that a warmer climate makes storms wetter, pouring more rain, and that sea-level rises make hurricane-related storm surges worse.
“I don't see hurricanes as necessarily the best piece of evidence to see that global warming is real,” Vecchi said in his email. “The fact that the planet has been warming: surface, ocean, land, deep ocean; that ice and snow have been melting; and that sea level has been rising are much more compelling and unambiguous.”
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-- Not just Trump: Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) too won't say whether or not he believes in man-made climate change following Irma.
"Clearly our environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is,” Scott said, according to Politico. "But I can tell you this: We ought to go solve problems. I know we have beach renourishment issues. I know we have flood-mitigation issues."
-- Delays continue: Two Senate Democrats are threatening to postpone confirmation of Trump’s pick to lead the EPA's enforcement office.
Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote a letter with a list of questions to Susan Bodine, tapped to lead the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. The senators said that “by advising Pruitt on enforcement matters before being confirmed by the Senate, Bodine may be violating the Federal Vacancies Reform Act that prohibits nominees from assuming the authorities of the office before being confirmed by Congress,” Reuters reported.
”Your appointment creates the appearance, and perhaps the effect, of circumventing the Senate’s constitutional advice and consent responsibility for the position to which you have been nominated,” the senators wrote.
Other than Pruitt, no other appointees to the agency have yet been confirmed.
-- To be shuttered: The Trump administration is set to close the EPA’s Region 6 Environmental Services Laboratory based... in Houston. The regional office serves five states and is expected to play a major role in recovery following the hurricane that hit that city.
The EPA will close the office in 2020, when the lease on the space it is renting expires, the Houston Chronicle reported. The lab, which recently has been focused on work post-Harvey, in general has been engaged in testing Superfund site samples. If the lab closes, those samples would need to be sent to another EPA lab or an independent testing site. The Chronicle noted the nearest EPA regional lab is 400 miles away in Ada, Okla.
The Houston metropolitan area has been designated by the EPA as one of the country's most contaminated areas, according to the Associated Press.
-- Coal ash rule might be burned: Federal regulators have struggled for decades with how to address coal ash, the substance that remains when coal is burned in power plants to generate electricity, writes The Post's Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin. And with a new decision Thursday from the EPA to reconsider parts of an Obama-era effort to regulate this potentially toxic waste, regulators could grapple with it for years to come.
The Obama rule, finalized in 2015, would have ramped up inspection and monitoring levels and required measures such as liners in new waste pits to prevent leaking that could threaten drinking water. After receiving a petition from industry officials asking the new administration to revisit the rule," Pruitt wrote in a statement Thursday: "It is important that we give the existing rule a hard look."
-- "Really? He was the environmental savior?" Speaking of the EPA, Pruitt sat down for an interview with the Washington Examiner, taking aim at German Chancellor Angela Merkel and his predecessors in the Obama administration.
- On Merkel, Pruitt said: "If Chancellor Merkel ... really cares about reducing CO2 in this world, why is she going away from nuclear?" Pruitt asked. "It's so hypocritical for countries to look at the United States and say, 'You need to do more.' Really? So, we've reduced our pollutants under the Clean Air Act [criteria pollutants and CO2]."
Merkel, once the head of the German ministry overseeing nuclear safety, has pushed for Germany to phase out nuclear power.
- On the Obama administration, Pruitt said: "I've got to say this to you: what is it about the past administration? Everyone looks at the Obama administration as being the environmental savior. Really? He was the environmental savior? He's the gold standard, right? Well, he left us with more Superfund sites than when he came in. He had Gold King [the 2015 mine wastewater spill] and Flint, Michigan [drinking water crisis]. He tried to regulate CO2 twice and flunked twice. Struck out. So what's so great about that record? I don't know."
It's not just Obama officials that have criticized Pruitt's deregulatory agenda. Last week, Christine Todd Whitman, an EPA chief in a Republican administration, wrote in the New York Times: "As a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush to run the agency, I can hardly be written off as part of the liberal resistance to the new administration. But the evidence is abundant of the dangerous political turn of an agency that is supposed to be guided by science."
-- A potential disaster "far greater than the Exxon Valdez spill": Man-made earthquakes caused by fracking have changed the landscape of Oklahoma, and now have the potential to affect oil storage tanks in the town of Cushing, a major U.S. trading hub for crude oil.
According to a report in Politico by Kathryn Miles, Cushing's oil tanks were built with tornadoes, not earthquakes, in mind — since earthquakes have only really become a problem since the fracking boom in the state. Tom Heaton, professor of geophysics at the California Institute of Technology, said that the Cushing tanks are built to the “weakest industry standards" so that, according to Politico, "even a moderate quake could be enough to violently push the oil from one side of the tank to another.”
The bottom line:
[W]hile the number of earthquakes and their intensity have increased in recent years, the strength of the regulatory apparatus in place to ensure their safety hasn’t kept pace. Oversight of the tanks has been left to a tiny agency buried inside the Department of Transportation that was never intended to serve this role. And the safety standards, which one earthquake expert calls the weakest permissible, were created by an industry trade group rather than the government agency. For those inclined to contemplate worst-case scenarios, the prospect of an earthquake rupturing the Cushing tanks would be an environmental catastrophe far greater than the Exxon Valdez spill.
-- “Significantly underestimated”: Valero, the nation's largest oil refiner, “significantly underestimated” the amount of benzene that leaked from a Houston refinery during Harvey, the EPA said on Thursday. Valero initially reported 6.7 pounds of benzene and more than 3,350 pounds of other volatile compounds, the Houston Chronicle reported, but the EPA says it is a markedly higher total. The agency is preparing a report and won’t release the updated totals until it completes an investigation.
From the Chronicle:
The benzene release by the Valero refinery was the strongest concentration of toxic compounds detected by any independent air monitoring throughout the Houston area in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, although there were elevated levels also detected in cities like Baytown and Port Arthur.
-- "What the heck is this??:" That’s what Preeti Desai, a social media manager at the National Audubon Society asked on Twitter about a sea creature that washed up onto shore in southeast Texas following Harvey.
After some searching for the right expert, Kenneth Tighe, a biologist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was found, writes The Post’s Lindsey Bever.
Tighe, an eel expert, told Earth Touch News that the creature was most likely a fangtooth snake-eel, or Aplatophis chauliodus.
-- Reaching for renewables: More than 300 groups, including businesses and environmental advocates, are pushing for the state of Maryland to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar.
The Post's Josh Hicks reports on a Democratic bill calling for the 50 percent standard by 2030. Earlier this year, Maryland’s Democratic-majority legislature approved a 25 percent renewable-energy requirement by 2020, up from a 20 percent level for a 2022 deadline. Lawmakers then overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) veto of the bill.
Similar measures have popped up in other states. For example, Hawaii, with no native fossil-fuel resources, aims to reach 100 percent renewables by 2045. California and New York have laws targeting 50 percent by 2030, and Oregon and the District of Columbia have requirements to meet that standard by 2040 and 2032.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on Sept. 20 on the nominations of Michael Dourson, Matthew Leopold, David Ross, and William Wehrum to be assistant administrators at the EPA, and Jeffery Baran to be a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"I'll be back here numerous times," President Trump says during his visit to Florida after Irma:
Trump: We want Floridians to be 'happy' despite the circumstances:
Trump and Vice President Pence hand out sandwiches in Florida after Irma:
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was caught on a hot mic saying "Trump likes us":