CHAPTER 29 - Stormy Weather
It's a new year and good riddance to the old one. I just looked up my January column for last year, 2012, and found that I began the column with the following: "Happy New Year! The year 2011 is over and good riddance. I'm sure that view is shared by most people the world over, having suffered record breaking weather-related or ground-disturbance disasters of monumental proportions. Here in New Jersey, even today, we still see some piles of debris or hanging limbs tracing back to our October snowstorm, which resulted in our being designated a major disaster area by President Obama." This past year, 2012, saw much worse devastation here in New Jersey due to Sandy and last month's horrific shooting of those 20 children cast a pall on the normally joyous holiday season.
A few days ago, I "celebrated" my 85th birthday. At the same time, I got a report from my primary care doctor that X-rays showed that I have arthritis in my hip. A somewhat significant birthday and signs of aging affecting my body leads me to reflect upon how my wife and I were physically active and able to travel extensively up until just a few years ago. One of those trips was brought to mind yesterday (New Years Day) as we watched the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena. Our friend, Margaret, who lives in California, took us to the parade and we also got to watch the workers place the flowers one by one on a float the day before the parade. The effort put into those floats is truly remarkable.
Reflecting on the past also brings to mind something that I've often done in my January columns - consider the biggest scientific stories of the preceding year. Discover magazine, in the January/February 2013 issue, rates the top 100 top stories of 2012. Number 1 is "what causes the weight of the world", the discovery of the Higgs boson, while number 2 is the successful landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars. We've covered both in previous columns and I can't agree more with Discover's choices for the top spots. Story number 3 is the European- and USA-based microbiome projects that have made extensive studies of the bacteria and other microbes residing in us humans, notably in our guts. It's now clear that we depend on many of these little guys to live a healthy life and that antibiotics can kill off some of those that are really important for our well being.
I could go on down Discover's list of top stories but, for now, I'll stop at number 4, which is, in my opinion, one of the most important stories of this past year and will quite likely be the most important story in the future. Discover titles it "Earth Goes to Extremes" and includes the record heat waves, droughts, floods, and melting that has affected places it never has before. Discover lists 10 examples of these extremes, one being the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy that hit us in New Jersey and New York and caused so much damage. Sandy cost a hundred lives, but floods in Nigeria killed over 400 people. Floods and landslides in China resulted in evacuation of over a million residents and destroyed a million acres of farmland. Australia had heavy monsoons that caused flooding threatening over 70 percent of New South Wales. On the other hand, India suffered a lack of monsoons, which normally supply more than 75 percent of its rainfall. Lack of water for hydroelectric plants led to the largest blackout in history - a two-day affair that left half of the more than a billion Indians without power. Here in the US, heat waves helped trigger droughts that affected 80 percent of the country with wildfires consuming 9 million acres.
In stark contrast to drought and wildfires is the subject of an article by Michael Dettinger and B. Lynn Ingram titled "The Coming Megafloods" in the January 2013 issue of Scientific American. The article deals with "atmospheric rivers", a term new to me. An atmospheric river is a stream of water vapor that may be 250 miles wide and forms about a mile high in the atmosphere. The most impressive characteristic of this river in the sky is its length, which may extend thousands of miles, even across an entire ocean basin, the Pacific Ocean, for example. Such an atmospheric river may contain as much water as 10-15 Mississippi Rivers!
If I recall correctly, the Biblical flood began with a rainstorm lasting 40 days. I had not heard of the 43-day rainstorm that hit California starting on Christmas Eve in 1861. One of those atmospheric rivers just kept pouring down the rain from over the Pacific and California was devastated, to say the least. California's Central Valley became an inland sea some 300 miles long and 20 miles wide and thousands of people died, as did around 200,000 cattle. Sacramento was flooded under ten feet of water loaded with mud from innumerable landslides. The state legislature had to move to San Francisco for six months until Sacramento dried out.
Scientists have analyzed sediment deposits at various locations in California and conclude that major floods of this nature have occurred at roughly 200-year intervals dating back to about 212 A.D. Especially vulnerable to atmospheric rivers are the west coasts of the continents. The article contains a map showing the likely paths of major atmospheric rivers. California and the west coast of the U.S., Chile, southern Africa, Portugal and Spain, western Australia and even here in New Jersey are all in possible lines of fire, or more accurately water. In our case, the river would arise in the Gulf of Mexico and come up north across the Gulf coast. The recent flooding in Nashville is associated with one of these atmospheric rivers.
Of course, the speculation is that global warming will only enhance the possibility of more frequent and more severe weather episodes due to atmospheric rivers and may contribute to more frequent storms such as Sandy hitting the New Jersey-New York areas. The article points out that, while Californians are concerned about the "Big One", the earthquake, the "Big One", the megaflood, would actually be much more devastating!
Sorry to be so pessimistic starting off the new year. I hope you had a happy holiday and wish you all the best for a happy and healthy New Year. I'm posting this on January 2, so there is some good news. At least for the time being, we have escaped the "fiscal cliff"! Is it too much to hope that our politicians may actually learn to work together?
Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about February1.
Allen F. Bortrum