"Hell and High Water hits Georgia"
Once-in-a-century drought followed by once-in-a-century flooding — Hell and High Water — that’s something larger and larger swaths of this country will need to get used to, especially if their Congressional reps keep opposing action on climate change.
Douglas county Georgia was “hit by 21 inches of rain in a 24-hour period from Sunday to Monday, knocking out the drinking water supply to most residents, and forcing others to boil their water,” the NYT reports. “As much as 15 to 20 inches of rain pounded counties around Atlanta for more than 72 hours.”
On Tuesday, Reuters reported “a state climatologist said this was the worst [flooding] in 100 years in some parts of Atlanta.” Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution listed the records set. Here are just a few:
Among the flooding records, a nearly 90-year-old mark was broken Monday when the Chattahoochee River reached 29.61 feet near Whitesburg, west of Palmetto. The old record was 29.11 feet, set on Dec. 11, 1919.
Downstream, the Chattahoochee on Tuesday beat another nine-decade record near Franklin, reaching 29.97 feet. The new record bested a Dec. 15, 1919 mark.
The largest jumps came at Utoy Creek, near Atlanta, where the water level surged to 27.54 feet, nearly 11 feet over the May 2003 record of 16.86 feet, and Sweetwater Creek at Austell, where Tuesday’s crest of 30.17 feet topped the previous record of 21.81 feet set in 2005.
I have called this type of rapid deluge, “global warming type” record rainfall, since it is one of the most basic predictions of climate science — and its an impact that has already been documented to have started (see below).
And on top of the direct storm-related deaths, it is a broad threat to human health. As the AJC reported yesterday:
The record rains of the past few days flooded out sewage treatment plants in Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties, dumping millions of gallons of untreated sewage into local waterways.
So, water already polluted by oil and gasoline, trash, pesticides and other ground contaminants will also be carrying debris and bacteria from human waste….
The damaged plants around metro Atlanta continue to dump untreated, or not-fully-treated sewage into floodwaters that then end up rising into homes and businesses.
The main reason I am writing about Georgia’s once-in-a-century flooding, though, is that just a short while ago, the region was hit by a once-in-a-century drought (see “And the drought goes on“). This is the climatic whipsawing of Hell and High Water. Here is how things looked in October 2007:
As the New York Times reported back then:
For the first time in more than 100 years, much of the Southeast has reached the most severe category of drought, climatologists said Monday, creating an emergency so serious that some cities are just months away from running out of water”¦.
The situation has gotten so bad that by all of [state climatologist David] Stooksbury’s measures “” the percentage of moisture in the soil, the flow rate of rivers, inches of rain “” this drought has broken every record in Georgia’s history“¦.
And no, far be it from me to say that current flooding is caused directly by global warming. Wouldn’t want to earn the wrath of the deniers and delayers who rush from house to house removing the batteries from the smoke detectors.
But funny how we are seeing these wild swings from extreme drought to extreme flooding more and more, just like those pesky climate scientists warned — see, for instance, my June post, AP, Washington Times: “Experts suspect global warming may be driving wild climate swings that appear to be punishing the Amazon with increasing frequency”:
Across the Amazon basin, river dwellers are adding new floors to their stilt houses, trying to stay above rising floodwaters that have killed 48 people and left 405,000 homeless.
Flooding is common in the world’s largest remaining tropical wilderness, but this year the waters rose higher and stayed longer than they have in decades, leaving some fruit trees entirely submerged.
Only four years ago, the same communities suffered an unprecedented drought that ruined crops and left mounds of river fish flapping and rotting in the mud.
Experts suspect global warming may be driving wild climate swings that appear to be punishing the Amazon with increasing frequency.
The BBC also got the story right in May, “Experts say global warming may be behind the wild climate swings that have brought periods of unprecedented droughts and flooding to the Amazon in recent years.”
Interestingly, the same exact swings in extreme weather hit Louisiana in 2005, as I wrote in my book Hell and High Water:
While the U.S. suffered a record-smashing hurricane season that deluged southern Louisiana with rain in the summer of 2005, “the eight months since October 1, 2005 have been the driest in 111 years of record-keeping” in southern Louisiana, the U.S. National Climatic Data Center reported in July 2006.
What makes the AP and the Washington Times story on Brazil so unusual is not only that the Times is a right-wing newspaper, but that the story continues with an extended discussion of the climate issue:
… climatologists say the world should expect more extreme weather in the years ahead. Already, what happens in the Amazon could be affecting rainfall elsewhere, from Brazil’s agricultural heartland to the U.S. grain belt, as rising ocean temperatures and rainforest destruction cause shifts in global climate patterns.
“It’s important to note that it’s likely that these types of record-breaking climate events will become more and more frequent in the near future,” Mr. Nobre [a climatologist with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research] said. “So we all have to brace for more extreme climate in the near future: It’s not for the next generation””¦
“Something is telling us to be more careful with the planet. Changes are happening around the world, and we’re seeing them as well in Brazil,” President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said this month on his radio program”¦.
And for completeness’ sake on the subject of “global warming type” record rainfall, let’s run through some of the literature one more time. Regular readers can skip the rest of this post.
In 2004, the Journal of Hydrometeorology published an analysis by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center that found “Over the contiguous United States, precipitation, temperature, streamflow, and heavy and very heavy precipitation have increased during the twentieth century.”
They found (here) that over the course of the 20th century, the “Cold season (October through April),” saw a 16% increase in “heavy” precipitation events (roughly greater than 2 inches [when it comes as rain] in one day), and a 25% increase in “very heavy” precipitation events (roughly greater than 4 inches in one day)- and a 36% rise in “extreme” precipitation events (those in the 99.9% percentile “” 1 in 1000 events). This rise in extreme precipitation is precisely what is predicted by global warming models in the scientific literature.
In fact, the last few decades have seen rising extreme precipitation over the United States in the historical record, according to NCDC’s Climate Extremes Index (CEI):
Here is a plot of the percentage of this country (times two) with much greater than normal proportion of precipitation derived from extreme 1-day precipitation events (where extreme equals the highest tenth percentile of deluges, click to enlarge):
Even the Bush Administration in its must-read U.S. Climate Change Science Program report, Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate, acknowledged:
Many extremes and their associated impacts are now changing”¦. Heavy downpours have become more frequent and intense”¦.
It is well established through formal attribution studies that the global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases.“¦ The increase in heavy precipitation events is associated with an increase in water vapor, and the latter has been attributed to human-induced warming.
In the future, with continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity.
In short, get used to it.
If you are a journalist wondering what is a reasonable way to talk about this, one of the best recent examples comes from a New York Times story on Australia made possible by our friend Andrew Revkin:
The firestorms and heat in the south revived discussions in Australia of whether human-caused global warming was contributing to the continent’s climate woes of late “” including recent prolonged drought in some places and severe flooding last week in Queensland, in the northeast.
Climate scientists say that no single rare event like the deadly heat wave or fires can be attributed to global warming, but the chances of experiencing such conditions are rising along with the temperature. In 2007, Australia’s national science agency published a 147-page report on projected climate changes, concluding, among other things, that “high-fire-danger weather is likely to increase in the southeast.”
The flooding in the northeast and the combustible conditions in the south were consistent with what is forecast as a result of recent shifts in climate patterns linked to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research.
That’s how it is done.
And no, I’m not say that the media should link every extreme weather event the way Revkin did. But when we have “worst on record” type events, or 100-year floods “” and especially ones that last more than a day and hit a broad area “” then I think the reporter has an obligation to include the issue.