Masters on Brazilian floods: Brazil’s deadliest natural disaster in history

The role of near-record sea surface temperatures

Torrential rains inundated a heavily populated, steep-sloped area about 40 miles north of Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday and Wednesday, triggering flash floods and mudslides that have claimed at least 511 lives. Rainfall amounts of approximately 300 mm (12 inches) fell in just a few hours in the hardest-hit regions, Teresopolis and Nova Friburgo. Many more people are missing, and the death toll is expected to go much higher once rescuers reach remote villages that have been cut off from communications. The death toll makes the January 2011 floods Brazil’s worst single-day natural disaster in its history. Brazil suffers hundreds of deaths each year due to flooding and mudslides, but the past 12 months have been particularly devastating. Flooding and landslides near Rio in April last year killed 246 people and did about $13 billion in damage, and at least 85 people perished last January during a similar event.

Following fast on the heels of another extreme drought hitting the Amazon comes devastating Brazilian floods. According to scientists, this climate-whipsawing from mega-drought to mega-flood will become increasingly common as human emissions intensify the hydrological cycle (see Study: Global warming is driving increased frequency of extreme wet or dry summer weather in southeast, so droughts and deluges are likely to get worse). Indeed, it’s just happened to both Australia and this country (see “Hell and High Water hits Georgia”).

In this Wunderblog repost, Meteorologist and former hurricane hunter Dr. Jeff Masters has the story — and an analysis of the “departure of temperature from average for the moisture source regions of the globe’s four most extreme flooding disasters over the past 12 months”Role of near-record sea surface temperatures in Brazil’s floodThis week’s heavy rains occurred when a storm system crossing from west to east over southern Brazil drew in a moist southerly flow air off the Atlantic Ocean over southern Brazil. Sea surface temperatures along the Brazilian coast are at near-record warm levels, which likely contributed to the heavy rains. Record rains are more likely when sea surface temperatures over the nearby moisture source regions are at record high levels. This occurs because increased amounts of water vapor evaporate into the atmosphere from a warm ocean compared to a cold one, due to the extra motion and energy of the hotter water molecules. According to an analysis I did of the UK Met Office Hadley Centre sea surface temperature data set, December 2010 sea surface temperatures in the 5×5 degree region of Earth’s surface along the Brazilian shore nearest the disaster area, 20S to 25S and 45W to 40W, were the second warmest on record since 1900. Temperatures were 1.05°C (1.9°F) above average in this region last month. Only 2007, with a 1.21°C departure from average, had warmer December ocean temperatures.

Meteorologist Eugenio Hackbart, with the Brazilian private weather forecasting company Metsul, wrote in his blog today, “Heavy rains early this year coincide with the strong warming of the Atlantic along the coasts of southern and southeastern Brazil. With waters up to 2°C warmer than average in some places, there is a major release of moisture in the atmosphere essential for the formation of storms.”


Figure 2. Newspaper front page story in Brazil after the March 18, 1967 flooding disaster, Brazil’s previous deadliest single-day natural disaster. Image credit: Metsul.Brazil’s previous worst natural disaster: the March 18, 1967 floodThe previous worst natural disaster in Brazilian history occurred on March 18, 1967 when a tsunami-like flood of water, mud and rocks swept down a hillside in the coastal city of Caraguatatuba, near Sao Paulo, killing 300–500 people. According to meteorologist Eugenio Hackbart with the private Brazilian weather company Metsul, a rainguage at nearby Sao Sebastao measured 115 mm (4.5″) on March 17, and 420 mm (17″) on March 18. Hackbart puts the death toll from the 1967 disaster at 300–500, and refers to it as Brazil’s deadliest single-day natural disaster in history. Heavy rains at other locations in Brazil that month caused additional mudslides and flooding deaths, and Wikipedia lists the total death toll for the Brazil March 1967 floods at 785.

I looked at the sea surface temperatures for March 1967 to see if unusually warm ocean waters may have contributed to that year’s flooding disaster. Sea surface temperatures in the 5×5 degree region of Earth’s surface nearest the disaster site (20S to 25S, 50W to 45W) were 0.24°C (0.4°F) above average, which is not significantly different from normal. So, we can get record rains and flooding when sea surface temperatures are near normal, and it is possible that this week’s catastrophe was not significantly impacted by the exceptionally warm water near the coast. However, heating up the oceans loads the dice in favor of extreme rainfall events, and makes it more likely we will have an unprecedented flood.

If we look at the departure of temperature from average for the moisture source regions of the globe’s four most extreme flooding disasters over the past 12 months, we find that these ocean temperatures ranked 2nd or 3rd warmest, going back through 111 years of history:

  • January 2011 Brazilian floods: 2nd warmest SSTs on record, +1.05°C (20S to 25S, 45W to 40W)
  • November 2010 Colombia floods: 3rd warmest SSTs on record, +0.65°C (10N to 0N, 80W to 75W)
  • December 2010 Australian floods: 3rd warmest SSTs on record, +1.05°C (10S to 25S, 145E to 155E)
  • July 2010 Pakistani floods: 2nd warmest SSTs on record, +0.95°C (Bay of Bengal, 10N to 20N, 80E to 95E)

The size of the ocean source region appropriate to use for these calculations is uncertain, and these rankings will move up or down by averaging in a larger or smaller region of ocean. For example, if one includes an adjacent 5×5 degree area of ocean next to Brazil’s coast that may have also contributed moisture to this week’s floods, the SSTs rank as 7th warmest in the past 111 years, instead of 2nd warmest. It would take detailed modeling studies to determine just how much impact these near-record sea surface temperatures had on the heavy rains that occurred, and what portion of the ocean served as the moisture source region.

Figure 3. Predicted total precipitation amounts in South America for the 7-day period ending at 7am EST January 21, 2011, as forecast by the 06Z run of the GFS Ensemble model made January 14, 2011. Image credit: Florida State University.

— Dr. Jeff Masters, in a Wunderblog repost.

JR: As if to emphasize how little they know about basic meteorology or climate science, Morano linked to a piece by the world’s must uninformed blogger, Steven Goddard, who actually wrote a post titled, “All Of Brazil Has Below Normal Temperatures — Romm Blames The Rain On Global Warming.” No wonder Watts threw him off WhatsUpWithThat, he couldn’t even meet WUWT’s minimal standards for disinformation (see Fastest disinformer retraction: Watts says Goddard’s “Arctic ice increasing by 50000 km2 per year” post is “an example of what not to do when graphing trends”).

Related Post:

Munich Re’s natural catastrophe database, the most comprehensive of its kind in the world, shows a marked increase in the number of weather-related events. For instance, globally there has been a more than threefold increase in loss-related floods since 1980 and more than double the number of windstorm natural catastrophes, with particularly heavy losses as a result of Atlantic hurricanes.

The rise in natural catastrophe losses is primarily due to socio-economic factors. In many countries, populations are rising, and more and more people moving into exposed areas. At the same time, greater prosperity is leading to higher property values. Nevertheless, it would seem that the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change. The view that weather extremes are more frequent and intense due to global warming coincides with the current state of scientific knowledge as set out in the Fourth IPCC Assessment Report.