Wednesday, June 26, 2019

How Cold Air Caused a Heatwave

From What’s Natural? Column

published in Pacifica Tribune June 26, 2019

Worst Heatwaves During the 1930s Dust Bowl Years

I was recently asked if the record June 2019 heat in the San Francisco Bay Area validated CO2 driven climate models. Surprisingly climate scientists have now demonstrated the heat wave was largely due to an intrusion of record cold air into the Pacific Northwest. How?

Basically, the winds’ direction controls the San Francisco Bay Area’s weather. In summer, California’s inland regions heat faster than the ocean, so the winds blow inland from the cooler ocean. Those onshore winds bring cooling fog, our natural air conditioner. Later, as the sun retreats southward in the fall, the land cools faster than the ocean. Seasonal winds then reverse and blow from the cooling land out to sea. Those winds keep the fog offshore. Without fog, San Franciscans finally enjoy pleasantly warm days in September and October. In northern California those strong offshore winds are called the Diablo winds. Although Diablo winds bring welcome warmth, those winds also increase wildfire danger.

Typically, inland California heats up in June drawing in the fog. But that temporarily changed when a surge of record cold air briefly entered Washington state and then moved down into northeastern California and Nevada. Dr. Cliff Mass, a climate scientist at the University of Washington, studies the Diablo winds. On his popular weather blog,  he discussed how that intruding cold air created an unseasonal burst of Diablo winds that then kept the fog offshore. Without cooling fog, solar heating increased temperatures dramatically. According to Accuweather, San Francisco’s maximum temperature on Friday June 7th was 67 °F, skyrocketed to a record 97 °F by Monday and then fell to 61 °F three days later as onshore winds returned. 

Such rapid temperature change is never caused by a slowly changing greenhouse effect.  Nevertheless, the media asks if rising CO2 concentrations could have contributed to the higher temperatures or made the heatwave more likely? 

Although definitions vary, the World Meteorological Organization defines a heat wave as 5 or more consecutive days of prolonged heat in which daily maximum temperatures are 9+ °F higher than average. Assuming the rise in CO2  concentration increased all temperatures relative to the 20thcentury average, it is believed maximum temperatures are more likely to exceed that 9 °F threshold. But heatwaves are not caused by increasing greenhouse gases.

The science is solid that greenhouse gases can intercept escaping heat and re-direct a portion of that heat back to earth. That downward directed heat reduces how quickly the earth cools, and thus the earth warms. However, heat waves typically occur when greenhouse gas concentrations are greatly reduced.  Eighty percent or more of our greenhouse effect is caused not by CO2, but by water vapor. Satellite data shows the dry conditions that accompany a heat wave actually reduce the greenhouse effect because drier air allows more infrared heat to escape back to space. However, like less fog, less water vapor and less clouds allow more solar heating. So despite the increase in escaping heat, increased solar heating dominates the weather and temperatures rise. 

The important contribution of dryness to heat waves helps explain why the USA experienced its worst heat waves during the 1930s Dust Bowl years (see EPA Heatwave Index above). Furthermore, the EPA’s heat wave index appears totally independent of rising CO2 concentrations.  Dryness also helps to explain why the hottest air temperature ever recorded anywhere in the world happened over a century ago in Death Valley on July 10, 1913; a time of much lower CO2 concentrations.

To summarize, an intrusion of record cold air into the Pacific Northwest generated unseasonal Diablo winds in northern California.  Those offshore winds prevented the fog from reaching and cooling the land. In addition, because the Diablo winds are abnormally dry, solar heating of the land increased. Those combined effects caused temperatures to temporarily jump by 30 °F. 

Lastly, not only can Diablo winds cause heatwaves, Diablo winds will fan small fires into huge devastating infernos such as the one that destroyed Paradise, California. Fortunately, there were few wildfire ignitions during this heat wave. To be safe, Pacific Gas and Electric had shut off electricity to areas predicted to have high wind speeds. So Dr. Mass mused, that because colder temperatures generate the destructive Diablo winds, climate warming may have some benefits.

Jim Steele is retired director of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, SFSU

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Fear Mongering Floods

published in the Pacifica Tribune June 12, 2019

What’s Natural

Politics Distorts the Science of Floods

At the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, native American “mound builders” built Cahokia, the largest city in pre-Columbus America. The purpose of their mounds is still debated. Were the mounds refuges from frequent floods, strategic defenses from hostile attacks, or monuments to ruling elites? I suspect all of the above. During warmer and more arid times with minor flooding, Cahokia’s population expanded. By 1250 AD its population equaled contemporary London or Paris. Charles Mann wrote about Cahokia in his superb book  1491 , “the kings who gained their legitimacy from claims to control the weather, would face angry questions from their subjects” when the catastrophic floods returned.  Indeed, as severe flooding increased, Cahokia was eventually abandoned.

Great Flood of 1927 Mississippi River

Eerily, in the wake of the 2019 Mississippi River Valley flooding, politicians are similarly telling flood victims that their climate policies can also control the weather. Washington’s Governor Inslee tweets, “For the people of Davenport, Iowa, climate change is personal. It’s destroying their homes, harming their communities, and hurting their livelihoods. We must defeat the climate crisis to protect our fellow Americans.” Senator Warren tweeted, “the consequences of climate change are severe, and they are already affecting places like Burlington, Iowa. We have a moral responsibility to act.”  But these politicians ignore the science and long history of the Mississippi’s floods. 

Investigating causes of Cahokia’s abandonment, scientists uncovered natural climate cycles 
governing the region’s flooding. Large floods were common between 300 AD and 600 AD.  Then between 600 AD and 1200 AD more arid conditions prevailed. But after 1200 AD severe flooding returned. Natural ocean oscillations can explain alternating patterns of dry and wet periods. So accordingly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expresses low confidence regards any global warming effect on modern flooding.

Over the Atlantic Ocean exists a large and somewhat permanent atmospheric pressure system named the North Atlantic Subtropical High (NASH), or Bermuda High. Its clockwise rotation critically effects the climate of the eastern United States. NASH is the reason the eastern United States experiences very humid summers in contrast to the dry west because on NASH’s western edge, warm moist air from the south is pumped northward. More importantly, NASH regulates regional droughts and floods. NASH naturally shifts locations over decades driven by natural ocean oscillations like El Nino. When NASH shifts further to the west, more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico is pumped into the Great Plains causing more floods. When shifted further east, the Midwest suffers more droughts. 

Non-scientific journalists and media talking heads falsely insinuate recent extreme flooding is due to global warming. They parrot a single fact that “warmer air can hold more moisture”. Although true, that fact is grossly misapplied. The earth’s warmest air temperatures happen over deserts, but there the air is bone dry. The key to extreme rainfall is not temperature, but how much moisture is transported from the oceans to the land. During cooler times, severe Mississippi Valley floods were observed in 1809, 1829, 1844, 1851, 1874 and 1882. The Great Flood of 1927 is considered the Mississippi Valley’s greatest modern flood. Due to the transport of excessive moisture from the Gulf, average rainfall nearly doubled in 1927. 

In contrast to global warming predictions, the Mississippi River Valley also experienced below average winter temperatures and above average snowfall in early 2019. The National Weather Service issued early warnings that the melting snow could cause flooding. They further warned the frozen ground and saturated soils wouldn’t absorb the excess water, additionally swelling streams and rivers. 

So many farmers are rightfully rejecting the politicians’ climate claims. Instead farmers blame the Army Corps of Engineers for breached levees and improperly managing levee systems. Levees had seduced people to move into the flood plains. People assumed those levees would always be maintained. But worse, the levee systems unintentionally elevated flooding probabilities.

Each year high water levels from snowmelt and spring rains cause rivers to approach flood stage. Excess water would normally get stored on natural floodplains, minimizing downstream floods. But when levees deny a river’s access to its flood plains, higher volumes of flood water get shunted downstream. Instead of allowing flood waters to spread out, levees narrow a river’s channel width, forcing the river to rise much higher than normal. Thus researchers had warned, “river engineeringhas elevated flood hazard on the lower Mississippi to levels that are unprecedented within the last five centuries.”  

Blaming CO2climate change only misguides attention from these real problems. If politicians sincerely hope to promote wise flood protection, they better educate themselves regards natural climate cycles and the unintended consequences of separating rivers from their flood plains.

Jim Steele is retired director of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, SFSU