January 15 2023

January 15 2023

the California deluge, floating offshore-wind turbines, fossil fuels driving higher electricity prices, Hurricane Ian damages beehives needed for agriculture, ozone hole is slowly healing

In late December, the jet stream set up to bring a series of strong and wet storms across the Pacific Ocean to California. These storms, in which a flow of moisture can be seen moving from the tropical Pacific toward North America, are known as atmospheric rivers (The New York Times has a first-hand account of flying Atmospheric River Reconnaissance. Data collected by aircraft is essential to learn about these major storms). They are not uncommon, and such storms make up a significant fraction of California’s annual precipitation. However, when they occur consecutively, the flooding can be intense. The Washington Post notes that, in 13 days since late December, San Francisco recorded 11.16 inches of rainfall, the wettest stretch for the city since 1871. Another article in The Washington Post describes the ongoing flooding and damage in the state. As of this writing, the Salinas River is rising, and could cut off road access to the Monterey Peninsula.

Atmospheric rivers have been a component of the climate of western North America as far back as scientists have looked, and they can be enormous. For those interested in knowing more about these major storms, I highly recommend The Coming MegaFloods in Scientific American. (The California water blog offers a good overview of the role the storms play in California’s freshwater ecosystems.) The historic scale of the precipitation in the last few weeks is being compared to the winter of 1861-62, when the rains started early in November and continued nearly uninterrupted for four months (66 inches of rain fell in Los Angeles). You could sail a boat from Fresno to Sacramento. The state capitol had to be relocated and California was almost forced into bankruptcy. The San Francisco Chronicle describes the Great Flood of 1862, using local newspaper accounts as the Chronicle itself would not be founded for several years after the flood.

According to a recent study, climate change has already doubled the chance of California having a winter like 1861-62. A key risk from atmospheric rivers, as The Washington Post notes, is that they can be relatively warm and bring heavy rainfall onto accumulated snow. This accelerates melt. It was just such a storm event on January 9, 1862, that greatly exacerbated the flooding. In February 2017, rain from atmospheric rivers fell atop snow in the Feather River watershed, leading to the massive runoff event that damaged the main and emergency spillways of the Oroville Dam. In The Washington Post, Peter Gleick provides a great summary of the Great Flood of 1862, and describes the steps we need to take to make ourselves more resilient in the face of our new climate.

The current storm damage is characterized by falling trees, which have been weakened by the drought for several years. The New York Times reports that falling trees are taking down power lines, shutting down roads (including Highway 101 in Humboldt County), interfering with rail service, crushing buildings and causing several deaths. This is a clear example of how climate extremes can interact to amplify the damage. Intensified atmospheric-river storm events are consistent with climate-change projections, in which global warming is making storms wetter and more energetic. The Washington Post describes how atmospheric rivers are expected to become stronger, longer and more frequent as the world warms.

The deluge is helping to lift California out of extreme drought conditions. Newsweek notes that reservoir levels are climbing, which will help address water availability in 2023. The Washington Post reports that snowpack in the Sierras has reached 180% of normal. However, the drought has been ongoing for 20 years, and it will take more than one wet year to end it. California’s aquifers, which account for more than half of the state’s water supply during drought years, presently contain just two-thirds of their normal amount of water. The heavy rainfall presently falling in California runs off quickly, and so is not optimal for recharging aquifers. In addition, we must remember that, as our summers warm, the landscape moves more quickly toward drought no matter how much winter rain we have.

Some of the strongest offshore-wind resources in the U.S. are in locations that can only be accessed using floating turbines (The Conversation explains how floating wind turbines work). The Biden Administration has set a goal for the U.S. to have 15 GW of floating offshore wind by 2035, and in December 2022 the U.S. completed its first lease sales for floating wind power off the coast of California. Utility Dive notes that reaching the 15 GW goal likely will require the delivery of one 20 MW turbine every four days by 2030, a level of effort similar to the construction of Liberty Ships during WWII. This represents a huge logistical challenge to existing supply chains and port facilities, especially on the west coast where our ports are geared to container trade rather than to the fabrication and deployment of major equipment like turbines. On the east coast, there has been significant investment in ports such as the New Jersey Wind Port, South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in New York and the State Pier in Connecticut. California recently took the first step along this path by funding planning and design for the Humboldt Bay Offshore Wind Heavy Lift Marine Terminal.

Offshore wind faces political challenges as well, as the fossil-fuel industry is funding front groups to try and gin up opposition to projects with false claims. Distilled describes the work of the Caesar Rodney Institute, which is using funding from American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers to mislead coastal residents about the visual and economic impacts of offshore wind.

Inside Climate News notes that West Virginians are paying very high utility bills because the state continues to rely on coal-fired power plants (rates have risen five times the national average). The state’s Public Service Commission has been demanding that its largest electric utility, American Electric Power (AEP), rely even more on coal, while AEP is saying that this will only increase costs for consumers. The article describes how the Commission’s commitment to the coal industry, which is reflected throughout state government, is driving the decisions to keep coal plants operating despite their high costs.

The Indianapolis Star reports that Hoosiers are also paying high prices for electricity because of their dependence on fossil fuels. These high costs derive from price increases for fuels driven by the market impact of the war in Ukraine, with one utility reporting that natural-gas prices will be 290% higher than last year. In addition, price increases are being driven by the need to buy replacement electricity when plants break down. Climate Nexus notes: “The $600 million Eagle Valley gas plant broke just three years after opening and sat idle for almost a year, and another gas plant was shut down most of this year. The CenterPoint coal plant also broke in June and it’s unknown when it will come back online, how much it will cost to fix, or even exactly what broke.”

EuroNews reports that the European Commission has approved a decision in France to eliminate airline flights between cities that are linked by a train journey of less than 2.5 hours. This is an effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the country. France is also cracking down on the use of private jets for short journeys. Meanwhile, Grist reports that Europe is experiencing record warm temperatures in January that constitute “the most extreme heat wave in European history.”

In The New York Times, writer Elizabeth Rush reports from her time aboard the Nathaniel Palmer icebreaker on a scientific expedition to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. It took the expedition a month to arrive at the edge of Thwaites which, by many measures, is one of the most remote regions on Earth. She notes that, “Things we used to classify as inert — ice shelves, glaciers, ice caps — are springing into action,” forcing us to engage with these remote places that are actually not so distant after all. The Guardian notes a recent study suggesting that the glaciers of East Antarctica, long considered less susceptible to melting, may in fact contribute more to sea level rise in this century than previously thought. The Washington Post examines the scientific debate about whether global warming is contributing to more frequent cold-weather events where Arctic air moves south.

More damage from Hurricane Ian is coming into focus. The New York Times reports that between 150,000 and 300,000 beehives were destroyed by the storm, a loss that could have far-reaching consequences across the United States. In 2018, after Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, Greater Good Charities helped feed a billion bees, said Noah Horton, the organization’s chief operating officer, “to ensure the stability of our food system.”

And Grist reports on the growing insurance crisis in Florida, where small insurance companies have been going bankrupt and the large reinsurance companies are becoming less active. This is forcing the State of Florida to provide more and more financial resources to keep the insurance market afloat, and the state-sponsored Citizens insurance is now one of the largest insurers in the state. But as damage from extreme weather is growing and major reinsurers are leaving the market, Florida will find itself in an unsustainable position unless individual premiums get raised substantially. Raising individual premiums is not a popular solution among Florida politicians, as Floridians already pay property-insurance premiums three times the national average.

High Country News interviews the author of a recent book about the agricultural connections between Arizona and Saudi Arabia. Saudi-owned companies are pumping groundwater in Arizona to grow alfalfa that is then shipped to Saudi Arabia to feed dairy cows. (It turns out this is one example of a long relationship between agriculture in Arizona and the Arabian peninsula.)

A piece of good news in The Washington Post: the famous “ozone hole” continues to heal as global emissions of ozone-harming chemicals are declining. This demonstrates that, as a species, we can achieve global ambitions if we decide to do it. Inside Climate News reviews the good news from 2022 relating to alternative energy and climate.