Seasonal #Hurricane #Forecasts and ENSO

Like a bad remake of Groundhog Day, it’s that time of year when the various research groups emerge from their ivy covered lairs and issue forecasts for the upcoming Atlantic Hurricane season. I used to play that game, with the annual press conferences, media interviews, and associated tabulation of number of articles and citations to go into the next annual report and round of funding requests. But the last decade or so I have given up on the annual media circus as NOAA has started issuing its own estimates, and our research has moved on to site specific seasonal impact estimates rather than simply counting the number of storms. After all, having 20 storms doesn’t matter if none of them hit you; likewise, one storm can ruin your decade. So while this post does end with a suitably depressing outlook for 2021, it is more about the influence of the big driver of storm activity in the Atlantic: the ENSO or El Niño cycle.

CFS2 ENSO Forecast this fall from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has a huge impact on global weather. Although the usual way of measuring it is in terms of East Pacific sea surface temperatures, ENSO is a complex phenomena that changes both oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns worldwide. The Wikipedia page has a nice overview of the system; what concerns us here is the impact on hurricanes. In the Atlantic, the warm phase of ENSO (El Niño) typically depresses hurricane activity; likewise, the cold phase (La Niña) tends to result in more and stronger storms. Periods in between are called “ENSO Neutral” or neutral. The reason ocean temperatures in the Pacific influences Atlantic hurricanes (in another ocean thousands of miles away) are complex, but mostly have to do with wind shear over the Atlantic and the so-called “steering currents” that push storms around as they move across the ocean. Don’t confuse these Pacific SST’s with ocean temperatures in the Atlantic – that is a separate cycle and phenomena. Normally we associate warmer oceans with more hurricanes, but in this case, a warmer Pacific during a El Niño phase means the Atlantic becomes less favorable (at least from a wind shear perspective)! The worst combination is a cold Pacific (La Niña) and a warm Atlantic: the cold Pacific is cold because winds are favorable over the Atlantic, and the warm Atlantic means more energy for Atlantic storms. Confused yet? Don’t be – in this case it’s simple, we’re just looking at how the three phases of ENSO correlate with hurricane landfalls and damage since it is such a big factor.

Let’s take a look at the peak of hurricane season, the month of September to see what impact the contrasting ENSO phases have on the number of storms, as well as on damage. Using data since 1871, it’s pretty even split between the two contrasting conditions. About 25% of Septembers are El Niño, 24% are La Niña, whereas 51% are neutral. But in terms of total numbers of storms, 30% occur in La Niña years, whereas 22% occur in El Niño. That doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but it actually translates in to a significant difference in the number of storms between the two years – an El Niño September typically has one third fewer storms than either a neutral or La Niña year. The number of people impacted by hurricane conditions also reflects this difference in a similar way. About a third fewer people are impacted by hurricane conditions in an average El Niño September than in other kinds of years. Damage basin-wide is not quite so dramatic, with damage during La Niña years only about 25% higher than in El Niño. But … there are regional twists to this story.

The biggest driver of the economic impact of hurricanes in the Atlantic is of course the mainland United States. The US experiences nearly DOUBLE the economic impact of hurricanes in an average La Niña September as compared to El Niño years (33% vs 17%)! This is partly due to the higher intensity, but more importantly due to the landfalls in La Niña years being closer to high value exposures (cities, or targets if you prefer 😮 ) in the Northeast and Atlantic coasts. Looking at the other two active months, La Niña Augusts tend to have more storms – but those storms stay offshore, so the damage actually tends to be less than in El Niño years, but in October the impacts are dramatic. A La Niña October tends to generate three times the damage as an El Niño year.

If you look at individual states there are also dramatic differences. In Florida, La Niña Septembers have generated FOUR TIMES as much damage as El Niño years! In New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts there have been so few El Niño losses the computer said “Fuhgettaboutit” when I asked, they are so rarely damaged during those years, and La Niña years are so bad. The Gulf Coast isn’t quite so dramatic, but still Louisiana has had just under twice as much damage during La Niña.

Another interesting area is the Georgia/South Carolina Lowcountry coast (south of Edisto Isl). The unusual shape of the coastline, combined with being at the latitude where storms begin to recurve to the northeast means that for hurricane damage, the difference between La Niña and El Niño isn’t quite so dramatic – only about a 30% difference. However, unusually, activity is depressed in ENSO Neutral years, and elevated in both La Niña and El Niño Septembers.

What can we expect for this year? The current ENSO forecast for August to October is that we will almost certainly be at least neutral, and there is around a 50% chance of being back into La Niña conditions by September, and a higher chance for that in October. While not as favorable as last year, that’s Not Good for hurricane season, as it means higher than average activity. Therefore, I expect the hurricane forecasts coming out over the next few weeks to reflect that. Not likely as many storms as last year, but very likely to have multiple threats over the season. But there are a lot of other factors that go in to how many storm form in a given year, much less where any individual storms goes once it forms. The atmosphere is a very complex beastie.

So let the scare mongering begin … or, you could just enjoy the beautiful spring weather, the flowers blooming, and consider that as bad as hurricanes are, and unlike tornadoes that give you little warning, or earthquakes that give you almost none at all, you can see them coming days away, and have time to get out of the way. So as a reminder, this is the time of year to revisit your hurricane plans, especially insurance. There is a “lock out” period for changes prior to a storm and if you wait until one is headed your way, it’s too late. Check out Ready.gov for checklists and advice.

Cold Hard Cash: #cost estimate for the big freeze in #Texas

I’m starting to see a few estimates on the cost of this episode in the media, for what it’s worth here’s the Enki estimate … there is probably going to be on the order of $30-35 Billion in physical damage across the Southwest and Midwest, mostly in the form of water damage from busted pipes, of which about $20 Billion or so will be covered by insurance, making this a big but not catastrophic event for the suits. The economic hit on the other hand is probably another $40 to $55 Billion, making this a $80 to $90 Billion dollar episode when you roll together the physical damage, economic impact, and government budget hits. When you consider that a few hundred million dollars of mitigation efforts (efforts that were recommended as far back as 1989) could have prevented maybe all but about $10 Billion of that, not to mention all the human suffering and even loss of life, there should be a serious reconsideration of priorities and some well deserved finger pointing …

Still snow on the ground in the midwest as of Saturday afternoon …

About the #Texas #Outages

Lots of misinformation and spin going around about the ongoing wave of power outages in Texas. The TLDR is that 1) the systems in Texas are not properly protected from winter weather that it should be able to handle; 2) it’s mostly a natural gas problem; 3) the fact that a nuclear plant is offline, and renewables (wind, solar) are also offline due to weather isn’t helping. Here are some details …

Another wave of cold weather sweeping into Texas, Thursday Morning, 18 Feb 2021

The Texas grid -managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT – has around 84 Gigawatts (GW) of power available to it; winter peak demand is expected to be 67GW, and the peak demand earlier this week hit 69GW according to ERCOT. On Tuesday 16GW of renewables and 30GW of “thermal” sources (mostly natural gas) were offline. The biggest problem is that the natural gas system wasn’t able to handle the weather.

Yes, it is cold – but we have had colder events in the past. My quick-look analysis shows this is maybe a 1 in 15 year event, in the southern part of the state 1 in 25 or so. For “lifeline” infrastructure like the power grid, it should be able to handle a 1 in 50 event with intermittent outages. In 2011 there was a cold weather event that caused widespread outages. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) wrote a report about it with recommendations on how to address the problems. The report is pretty blunt, saying

The experiences of 1989 are instructive, particularly on the electric side. … investigated the occurrence and issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving winterization on the part of the generators. These recommendations were not mandatory, and over the course of time implementation lapsed. Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011. … However, in many cases, the needed fixes would not be unduly expensive.

This 2011 report also points out “On the gas side, producers experienced production declines in all of the recent prior cold weather events.” and “It is reasonable to assume from this pattern that the level of winterization put in place by producers is not capable of withstanding unusually cold temperatures.

The report describes the causes and impacts of storms in 1989, 2003, 2011, and others. The 2011 report executive summary states:

This report makes a number of recommendations that the task force believes are both reasonable economically and which would substantially reduce the risk of blackouts and natural gas curtailments during the next extreme cold weather event that hits the Southwest.

Needless to say, this wasn’t done. Therefore it would seem that what happened in Texas this week was completely foreseeable, and not some freak of nature, but a direct consequence of natural gas providers and the electric utilities not taking recommended actions to protect the grid from infrequent – but not rare or terribly unusual – weather events.

Commentary: A lot of commentators and sources like those on Fox News with an ax to grind are saying that this is because the wind and solar sources are offline. True, that isn’t helping, and the increasing reliance of the grid on these sources will over time be problematic on a lot of levels. Likewise, CNN is actually blaming climate change! That too is a bunch of bull crap, even though anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem we need to deal with. But the simple truth is that the blame this time is firmly on natural gas providers being too cheap to winterize their equipment against an eminently foreseeable event. This can be attributed in part to deregulation, the way the capital markets work, and the prioritization of quarter over quarter profits against overall system reliability. There are other complexities here, such as the move to NG based electricity production to speed the shutdown of coal fired plants (a move pushed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that is much more complex and less effective than policy planners want to admit). In short, this is an economics and political problem, not an engineering or mother-nature-sticking-it-to-us problem.

The bottom line is that for lifeline infrastructure like electrical power, the current system is unacceptable. The problem is, given the politics and economics, it isn’t going to get any better, and while not responsible for this particular disaster, the push for the “Green New Deal” and elimination of nuclear and fossil fuel based energy production will make it worse, just as the push to deregulate set up the current situation.

PS – for some great discussions about the energy industry, follow Art Berman’s twitter feed and if you’re in that world his blog and consulting resources are invaluable.

Thinking about weather/#climate #records

People love sports analogies. Maybe that’s why talking about weather records – be it record lows, record snow, whatever – gets a lot of press and attention. Sometimes it’s warranted, a lot of times it is (Surprise!) exaggerated and, almost always, reported out of context. The series of winter storms causing so much disruption across the US right now are certainly severe … here’s the current snow cover map, and forecast additional snow over the next 48 hours …

Snow Cover (blue) as of this morning (16 Feb 2021)

But just how “record breaking” is it? Let’s take a quick look at one weather station in Texas and try to get some context. Since we’re talking about the US, we’ll use medieval measurement units related to the FFF system 😛 …

Here is an excerpt from the official daily climate report from the NWS office in Houston, for Houston International Airport yesterday (Monday the 15th):

000
 CDUS44 KHGX 160849
 CLIIAH
 CLIMATE REPORT
 NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HOUSTON/GALVESTON TX
 249 AM CST TUE FEB 16 2021
 ……………………………..
 …THE HOUSTON INTERCONTINENTAL CLIMATE SUMMARY FOR FEBRUARY 15 2021…
 CLIMATE NORMAL PERIOD: 1981 TO 2010
 CLIMATE RECORD PERIOD: 1892 TO 2021
 WEATHER ITEM   OBSERVED TIME   RECORD YEAR NORMAL DEPARTURE LAST
                 VALUE   (LST)  VALUE       VALUE  FROM      YEAR
                                                   NORMAL
 ………………………………………………………….
 TEMPERATURE (F)
  YESTERDAY
   MAXIMUM         25   3:10 PM  83    1962  66    -41       67
                                       1990
                                       2000
   MINIMUM         16R  7:26 AM  18    1905  47    -31       40
   AVERAGE         21                        56    -35       54

That “R” next to the minimum means it is a new record. So … using the period 1892 to 2021 as the period of reference, the low temperature Monday set a new record for the 15th of February at 16 degrees. The old record was 18. In media headline terms, RECORD LOW IN HOUSTON!!! LOWEST TEMPERATURE IN OVER ONE HUNDRED YEARS!

But … if you read down a bit you will see the record for the 16th is 13 degrees, and if we check the 14th, the record was 10 degrees F (yes, ten!). So in that context, 16 is really cold but not so bad. Plus or minus a day in climate terms is no big deal, so for context you have to look at a couple of days either side of a record to see. In my global data archive I have daily records for thousands of stations since the mid 1970’s (that is the beginning of somewhat regular satellite data which is important in my research). Looking at Houston Intercontinental, we see that the twenty coldest temperatures since 1973 are:

     dtg         | lotempf 
 ---------------------+---------
  1989-12-24 00:00:00 |       7
  1989-12-23 00:00:00 |       7
  1983-12-25 00:00:00 |      11
  1989-12-25 00:00:00 |      11
  1983-12-26 00:00:00 |      11
  1982-01-11 00:00:00 |      12
  1985-01-22 00:00:00 |      16
  1985-01-21 00:00:00 |      16
  1989-12-22 00:00:00 |      16
  1979-01-03 00:00:00 |      17
  1979-01-02 00:00:00 |      17
  1983-12-27 00:00:00 |      18
  1983-12-31 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-20 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-11 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-10 00:00:00 |      18
  1983-12-24 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-19 00:00:00 |      18
  1983-12-30 00:00:00 |      19
  1976-11-30 00:00:00 |      19
 (20 rows)

So a low of sixteen is in fact pretty cold – now in the top 10 years since 1973, and the coldest mid February temperature since 1981 when there were a couple days that hit 20F.

In technical terms, this is the danger of looking at the tails of distributions, because of the way weather works with systems spanning several days, there is correlation between days, and gaps in the extremes.

So, yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s disruptive (even though it shouldn’t be, but that’s a different rant). It’s hazardous or even dangerous if you don’t exercise some common sense and take some precautions. But while extreme, I think calling it “once in a lifetime” is probably a bit overblown, given the 1989 Christmas cold snap with a week of lows below 20F. As with most things, context is everything.

Final note – during these kinds of extreme weather events, especially with power outages, please keep an eye on your neighbors (especially the elderly and those with health issues or disabilities) to make sure they are safe. Bring animals in for sure, and consider helping with projects that try to shelter strays. Given icy roads, DON’T DRIVE ON THEM IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING! And if you grew up in the south, be realistic: you don’t know what you are doing!!

Oh, and a reminder: WINTER STORMS DON’T HAVE NAMES!

The Coming Storm

No, not that one. Or that one. I mean the literal one, this one, the first big winter storm of the season. Here is the situation as of this morning (map forecast for 8am ET Wednesday, the storm is the “L” off the Georgia Coast):

Winter storm forming over Southeastern US … GFS model of precipitation type and moisture transport.

Like hurricanes, winter storms have to have a mix of conditions come together to cause them to grow and evolve. The key to weather on the earth is the need to balance the warm, moist air from the tropics with the cold, dry air over the poles. This happens in a number of ways, but in the summer the most dramatic are of course hurricanes. In the winter, it’s nor’easters. A classic nor’easter starts out as a low pressure system just off the coast of the Southeast. It moves northeast along the coast, carrying with it the warm moist air of the Gulf of Mexico and Bahamas, pushing that air inland where it meets cold polar air. It is along that swath where the air masses collide that the potential problems for Humans comes in. The danger this morning lies Appalachians and western North Carolina where the precipitation may be in the form of freezing rain, as well as inland in Kentucky (on the map, the red/purple area). Here is what things should look like this evening around 7pm. Notice that the low is deeper (stronger), the blue moisture transport vectors are longer (stronger), and across the New York/Pennsylvania area snow will be falling. The zone of freezing rain will by then have shifted to western Virginia.

The situation tonight …

By tomorrow morning the Low should be more elongated and off the Massachusetts coast, still pumping moist, snow-laden are into the NorthEast. The storm should be off the Canadian Marine Provinces by Friday.

Thursday Night

In terms of impacts, again the big concern is the area where freezing rain and ice will be falling. For the Northeast, snow could be fairly deep in places – some forecasts are for up to 24″ – but it’s more likely to be disruptive rather than truly dangerous, and again conditions should clear out by this weekend. For the Deep South (GA/SC), this will be a rain event, even for North Georgia. As things continue to cool off with the approaching winter season, the risk for ice storms will move further south … but the impacts of this event will be in North Carolina and the NEUS. How should you prepare for winter storm season? Take a look at the FEMA/DHS Winter Storm page for tips …

So what’s the weather going to be on Thanksgiving?

This year people are more attuned to the weather – for good reason. Given COVID19, gatherings outdoors are far safer than inside, so the weather is a bigger factor than usual. I’m getting a lot more questions like “what’s the weather going to be like next St. Swizzen’s Day” – be it for a holiday, wedding, birthday gathering, protest march, golf game, or whatever. My usual reply is “I study disasters; if I can tell you then you probably don’t want to know” doesn’t make people happy 😛 Of course I’ve got the tools here to do pretty much any kind of forecast from “nowcasts” to climate, but how does the average person answer that question without annoying their favorite scientist/blogger? Which provider is best? As it turns out, that’s an easy question to answer. Your tax dollars have funded a really great organization, the US National Weather Service, and they have some nice on-line tools for planning your holiday. Virtually all the other providers – be it big companies, TV stations, whatever, are using NWS data and perhaps “adding value” (although in most cases I’d argue they are adding FUD, but that’s a different post). So lets walk through using the NWS web site to see what tools are available, and if you can hold that Thanksgiving gathering outside, or if everyone will have to stay home and use video …

The starting place is https://www.weather.gov. Here’s what the main page looks like. Any warnings will be color coded:

The map is clickable … click on the location you’re interested in; it doesn’t have to be perfect, you’ll get the chance to refine it. But for your home location, enter the place name you want in the box on the left. You can use a zip code or place name – for example, you can enter “Ardsley Park, Savannah, GA” and the system will give you matching names …

If you click “remember me” then whenever you go to weather.gov your local forecast will pop up on the left side. Clicking “Get detailed information” and you will jump to the point location forecast … here’s where you can really get into seeing what is going on:

The page itself is a nice overview, but if I’ve got family coming over at 4pm Thursday, with dinner at 6pm, and people will probably start to go home at 8pm. How likely is it that we can eat outside at the picnic table, or will I have to set up tables all over the house inside, or just cancel? Jackets, build a fire in the fire pit, or Savannah being Savannah will we need bug spray? If you scroll down and look under the map on the right there is a box called “additional resources” …

Click the graph and you get the hourly forecast data.

You can change the date to see up to a week in the future; in this case let’s set the start point at 12am (midnight) on Thursday. Click submit and you get:

So for Ardsley Park area in Savannah, the temperature should be 70 degrees, light wind, 31% Cloud Cover. The precip chance is 18% – but if you look at the graph, it never gets above 20%, and drops to only 8% by 7pm, so chances are this is not a sharp rain producing weather system. Now that you’ve tagged this as your “remember me” location any time you to to weather.gov on that device it will have your forecast on the main page – and you can easily get the very detailed details!

But what if you are travelling? Just click on the national map … it will take you to the forecast for that point. In this case, as noted on the first map I directly clicked on Andrews NC, then got the “additional details” to see the timing and intensity of any rain:

Looks like rain overnight Wednesday (80% chance at midnight!) and perhaps Thanksgiving morning, but will clear out and be nice overnight, with rain maybe coming back Friday night (back up to 30% chance) .

When planning an event, obviously the closer in time the better the forecast. By the time we’re within three days they are pretty good; 3 to 5 days are fair, over five days takes some interpretation. I’ll try to do some more posts on that in the future, but hopefully this will get you started …

Doomwatch 11 Sept 2020

Globally we have a lot going on, and several apocalyptic vistas to describe. Given the peak of hurricane season and eight systems being watched, several earthquakes, the fires in the Western US, Pandemic, and several unstable geopolitical hot spots trying to flare up, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re doomed. But, when you take them one by one and see what the actual risks are … ok, it doesn’t look great, but hopefully not as bad as you might think. Rather than worry about what might happen, let’s look at what is happening …

Bit busier than I like to see it … click any graphic to embiggen.

Tropics: Leaving aside the watch areas, there are three systems to be concerned about. In the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Paulette is increasingly a threat to Bermuda. Here are the National Hurricane Center’s Key Messages regarding Tropical Storm Paulette. The current forecast track takes the storm right over the island, but wobbles of 100 miles one way or the other will make a big difference and it’s still a ways out. But folks there should be in their initial preparation phases.

Paulette Damage Swath

The second thing to be aware of is there is a system in The Bahamas that will need watching this weekend and early next week. It will just dump rain on Florida, maybe some gusty winds in thunderstorms, but as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico some of the models are showing it becoming a tropical storm before impacting the northern Gulf coast (Louisiana). Tracking and forecasts are just ramping up on this one … but here is what the GFS looks like for Tuesday morning:

GFSForecast for 5am Tuesday Morning – possible weak tropical storm near Louisiana, the big storm off of the east coast is Paulette; Rene is the weak thing on the right.

Rene is weakening and while it may recover some, it’s not heading towards any land anyway. There is a strong system that just moved off the coast of Africa. Models show it becoming a storm in the next few days, and heading towards the Caribbean. Too early to worry about it. There are two systems just off the coast of Mexico – both are likely to stay offshore. Longer term I’m sure that there will be angst over the strong system that has emerged from Africa. The GFS shows a very powerful storm moving near The Bahamas in 10 days – here is the forecast for Monday the 21st:

IGNORE THIS! Yes, dramatic scary picture, BUT it is a long range forecast with very little skill!

You’ll probably start to see more scary graphics like the above, and people talking about the ECMRWF and GFS model runs out 10 to 14 days. Ignore them – there is very little skill that far out. Don’t worry until the official forecasts start, and then only the five day forecasts have enough skill to act on.

And then there’s this …

Lots of rusty tanks of radioactive water. Insert large dinosaur-like creature joke here. Or not – it isn’t really funny.

The third system to watch is the potential for a tropical storm to form in the Western Pacific and impact Japan in a few days. It shouldn’t cause too many problems aside from rain, and the chance some of those highly radioactive waste water storage tanks at Fukushima will leak or even catastrophically fail. There are over 1000 tanks on site, some now approaching a decade old. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and nobody really knows what to do about it …

Earthquakes: There was a pretty strong earthquake in Chile about 3:30am this morning, part of a series rumbling the country recently. Power outages and light damage have been reported but so far no reports of injuries. Impacts in the low millions of USD if that.

Wildfires: For those watching the fires in the Western US, the CalFire incident site is a great resource. In addition to the fires themselves, the epic smoke is causing air quality impacts across the entire region. Large areas in Oregon are being evacuated and otherwise put on alert. This is worth a separate post and analysis … will try to do that at some point.

CalFire Incident Map

Pandemic: At first glance it would seem things in the US are getting better, but if you look at testing data and the deeper statistics this is likely the calm before the fall/winter storm. Will be doing a longer post on this. As it has been for a couple of months now, we are still in a “slow burn” phase rather than a crisis. Same advice as before – mask up when in public spaces, good hygiene, and while I’m normally a bit ambivalent about flu shots outside high risk groups for a lot of technical reasons, this year I think it’s a good idea for everyone who can get one to do it.

Geopolitics: Hard to know where to start – Belarus, the Eastern Mediterranean has multiple hot spots just waiting to flare up (Greece vs. Turkey, various players in Syria, Lebanon), not to mention Asia (PDRK, South China Sea, India/Pakistan/China, etc.), lots related to Russia (Navalny, hacking/interference allegations, etc). Any one of those would be worthy of a full blown doomwatch post. The stress that the pandemic has put on political and economic systems is extreme, and likely to be expressed in conflicts. Scary stuff, any could spiral out of control. But … much of the coverage of these various conflicts that does leak into the US media obsession with internal US politics is a bit overheated.

So on that note … just remember that there are always potential disasters out there and it can easily be overwhelming and depressing if you let it. Do what you can about the direct threats and don’t worry about the rest. The TL;DR today is: Bermuda needs to watch Paulette. Florida and the Gulf needs to watch the system moving in to Florida and be prepared for a tropical storm late this weekend/early next week. The west is on fire – be aware of rapidly changing conditions; those out there need to be ready to evacuate quickly, so be ready. Wear your (colorful language) mask outside your bubble, and otherwise try to enjoy life this weekend!

You Got The Fire Down Below …

The fires out west are epic – you can actually see the flames from the GOES satellite in geosynchronous orbit, 22,236 miles up … here is the color view:

Click to embiggen and animate …

Here is a static view zoomed in a bit:

Yes, those red patches are actually fire!

These fires, and their impacts, are a wicked combination of short term weather patterns, human development and “management” practices, the natural order of things (fires are a normal way nature cleans out the brush; some plants and animals that depend on them actually need periodic fires to survive), and probably a bit of climate change thrown in. Either way, it’s spectacular (in a bad way if you live out there).

The US and International Law and Conventions

A lot of people are incensed with the Trump administration’s announcement of the formal withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accords (the latest agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC).  These discussions are of course largely set within the internal domestic sound-bite wars that define modern US Politics. Republicans are applauding getting out of an agreement they contend would hobble the US economy and transfer wealth to foreign governments over the “fake” issue of climate change.  While some Democrats such Elizabeth Warren are noting the environmental and economic impacts, the response from other Democrats is emphasizing the disengagement from the treaty itself.  Bernie Sanders called  the President an “international embarrassment,”  and Biden tweeted “Trump continues to abandon science and our international leadership.”  Former Obama SECSTATE Kerry and SECDEF Hagel (technically Hagel is/was a Republican) have an op-ed in the Washington Post that emphasizes the disengagement from the international community as a central theme.

I won’t rant again about climate change and the UNFCCC, you can click here and read my views in another post.  In short, human impacts on the global climate system are increasingly serious and we’ve got to do something about it, but the present process and ideas on the table are utterly broken.  So while withdrawal is a bad idea, I don’t think the US pullout is going to make things worse because the Paris Accords and measures the Obama Administration committed to weren’t going to do much good anyway.  What concerns me here is how this is yet another example of the US undermining the entire framework of international law, norms, and conventions since the end of the Cold War.  This trend spans administrations and political parties.  At least the Trump Republicans are somewhat honest about it: they make their disdain for multilateral treaties clear, and have withdrawn from numerous agreements having much more direct consequences than the Paris Accords, such as the INF treaty, Iran Nuclear deal, TPP, NAFTA, and at least three other UN conventions/organizations (UNESCO, UNHRC, and UNRWA).  But Democratic Administrations (as well as prior Republican ones) have done tremendous damage to these organizations, and for individuals like Kerry and Hagel to whine about Trump’s actions is rank hypocrisy.

I have been involved with the technical operations of various international treaty organizations within the United Nations and Organization of American States for a bit over 25 years.  It’s a complex, frustrating, politically and technically complex world that at its worst is a monumental waste of time and money, but when it works (which is far more often than the critics would have you believe) it helps literally billions of people and makes the world a better place.  It requires a huge amount of patience and humility, and a willingness to compromise. Yes, you must keep America’s interests in mind, and there is nothing wrong with holding to reasonable lines that cannot be crossed, but one of those key interests is the long term stability of the complex system of international law, treaties, norms and conventions.  And that means sometimes you just can’t have everything your way, and you have to recognize that other countries also have legitimate concerns and interests.  But since the early 1990’s, the US has abandoned those concepts.  It views itself as “the Indispensable Nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future …” (per Madeleine Albright, the Clinton Administration Secretary of State from 1997-2001).  It feels “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.” (Dick Cheney, SECDEF in the 1990’s and VP under George W Bush). Time after time the US has not followed international law, intervening illegally in other countries, undermining treaty organizations, and acting as it likes simply because it has the military and economic power to get its way in matters great and small, pushing for its own position even in areas that are of little impact to vital US interests.  Compromise just isn’t in the US Diplomatic vocabulary any more.

After the GW Bush administration, many in the international community were hopeful that the US would re-engage the world on a more collaborative basis.  They were bitterly disappointed at subsequent Obama administration actions under Clinton and Kerry.  Given his pre-election rhetoric, there were no expectations of Trump.  He may be the last straw, but the loss of US prestige and influence in foreign affairs was a long time coming.  Eastern Europe and the Middle East are obvious failures, but in other areas less well known to the US public such as Central America, Africa, and Asia, the US has been playing a hypocritical game: flouting international law and treaties, all the while insisting other countries scrupulously comply with US interpretations.  You can’t have it both ways: to insist on rules, but violate it them when you don’t like having to follow them.

For the first 50 years after the Second World War, America was a leader in trying to create a stable framework of international relations. Over the last 25 years it has squandered that role. I hope the next Administration takes a long hard look at our Foreign Policy from first principles, and doesn’t just react to perceived flaws in the Trump administration’s term, because the problems run much deeper than that.

I close with a recent quote that sadly captures the current situation …

Washington’s daily display of contempt for other sovereign States has become the painstaking, mundane work of the U.S. state Department and the President. This policy has led to a virtual loss of competence in world decision-making, and the United States of America is perceived by fewer and fewer countries as a world leader, because the main feature of a leader is justice.

Washington has lost its bearings, who are friends and who are enemies … Washington is not able to reach a consensus, but uses blackmail and threats in its Arsenal of “diplomacy”.

It is impossible to build world politics and the future of our planet on the interests of only one state. I hope this will soon be understood by all the countries of our beautiful Earth.

— N. V. Poklonskaya

 

NOAA’s Atlantic Hurricane Season Update

Last week the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released an updated seasonal forecast, and due to the waning El Nino has increased their forecast for the number of storms expected this year, now saying there is an increased chance for an “above average” season.  What does that mean to you, the huddled masses cowering in fear along the shoreline, waiting for your inevitable doom?

Exactly nothing (assuming you have a hurricane plan already, which you should no matter what the seasonal forecast says).

First, even if you knew *exactly* how many storms were going to form in a year, it tells you nothing about how bad the season will be.  There have been above average years in raw numbers with no hurricane landfalls.  1992 was a below average year – well, except for Hurricane Andrew.  So unless you know where they are going to go, even one hurricane can ruin your day, and 20 can be no big deal if they are all fish storms.

Second, the numbers used to compute the averages are becoming more and more suspect.  This year’s “hurricane” Barry more than likely would not have been classified as a hurricane in past years for a number of reasons (before anyone yelps, no, this isn’t part of the Vast Global Warming Conspiracy(tm), it’s because of better observation systems that can see small patches of possible hurricane force winds, and different classification criteria).

I really don’t like the hype around seasonal forecasts and their updates.  Dr. Mark Johnson of UCF and I used to do them (including something NOAA doesn’t do, landfall probabilities), but the media circus and subsequent fear mongering were just a bit too much.  We still generate them, and they have decent enough skill, but they aren’t really “actionable” except for narrow applications.  About the only thing they are good from a public safety standpoint is “awareness,” but there are other ways of doing that than shoveling out the statistical stables …

So if you haven’t put together a plan yet, slap yourself and go to visit the FEMA web site and get some checklists to think about, consult your local EMA for risk maps for your risk of flooding (which is by far the major threat to life; the golden rule is shelter from wind, evacuate from water), and put together a plan.  Then don’t worry about it.