October 15 2022

October 15 2022

Powerful hurricanes strike the U.S. and Canada, Asian monsoon is stronger and less predictable, used car batteries have a second life as grid storage, closed fossil-fuel power plants have a renewable future

The Atlantic hurricane season, which had a quiescent August, roared to life in September. After causing widespread damage in Puerto Rico, which was still recovering from 2020’s Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Fiona traveled to the North Atlantic and struck Newfoundland. It was possibly the strongest storm to ever to make landfall in Canada and, according to Reuters, caused unprecedented damage. The Guardian describes how the storm was able to stay at hurricane strength this far north, by drawing energy from an Atlantic Ocean that was 2°C warmer than average. An article in Esquire notes that Fiona is another example of the need for climate action.

But Fiona was only the prelude to Hurricane Ian, which knocked out all the power in Cuba, destroying crops and homes, before making landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast. After devastating the Fort Myers area and flooding other parts of the state, the storm moved into the Atlantic, re-strengthened, turned back to the northwest and made landfall again in South Carolina. The fifth-mostpowerful storm to ever strike the United States, the New York Times notes that it will certainly be another in the growing list of billion-dollar disasters, and is the deadliest storm to hit Florida in 35 years. The Washington Post examines the frequency of billion-dollar disasters, which is rising. There was an annual average of 7.7 such events over the past four decades but, in the last five years, that average has jumped to nearly 18.

Ian rapidly intensified before striking Florida, a characteristic of hurricanes super-charged by the warmer ocean waters caused by climate change (other atmospheric conditions, particularly low wind shear, also contributed to the intensification). Ian went from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane in just 72 hours. An op-ed in the Guardian notes that “Human-caused warming is not just heating the surface of the oceans; the warmth is diffusing down into the depths of the ocean, leading to year after year of record ocean heat content. That means that storms are less likely to churn up colder waters from below, inhibiting one of the natural mechanisms that dampen strengthening.” The authors also note that the power of these storms increases exponentially as roughly the cube of wind speed — which is why a Category 4 storm is so much more damaging than a Category 3.

The damage from Hurricane Ian is going to take a while to tally (as of this writing, insured losses are estimated at $67 billion). Forty-eight hours after the storm made landfall, The Guardian reported that “98% percent of Cape Coral’s power infrastructure was obliterated,” and that there were more than 100 boil-water advisories across Florida. There was widespread flooding inland as rivers overflowed their banks due to the massive rainfall. The Washington Post notes that many possible sources of toxic contamination could’ve been mobilized by the storm, and just the volume of solid waste (including demolished buildings and automobiles) was enormous. Grist reports on how historic development of coastal wetlands created communities that were especially vulnerable to the storm surge from Hurricane Ian.

The impact of Hurricane Ian will be greatly enhanced by the fact that many of those in its path lacked insurance. The New York Times reports that, “in the counties whose residents were told to evacuate, just 18.5% of homes have coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program.” While there may be a small amount of assistance from FEMA or other sources, many homeowners are going to have major uninsured losses. Many Floridians impacted by the storm have limited incomes, and face the difficulty of finding a new place to live in a state with a shortage of affordable housing. This is particularly challenging for older residents. Communities in the path of the storm will be altered for many years, and perhaps permanently. The Guardian quotes a real-estate professional who states that the storm “will forever change the real estate industry and city infrastructure… Insurers will go into bankruptcy, homeowners will be forced into delinquency, and insurance will become less accessible.” The New York Times notes that — without insurance — there is no mortgage market, only rich people can buy homes and the real-estate market tanks.

Loss of life from Hurricane Ian (119 as of October 7) was likely exacerbated by the fact that Lee County, where the storm came ashore, delayed evacuation orders for its citizens. The storm was projected to make landfall north of the region but, over the last day, the track moved southeast to Lee County. The New York Times reports: “The delay was an apparent violation of the meticulous evacuation strategy the county had crafted for just such an emergency.” In The Guardian, the county commissioner defended his government’s handling of the evacuation order. It is interesting to note that the Tampa Bay area, which is one of the metropolitan regions most vulnerable to a major storm surge like that from Ian, once again dodged a direct hit as the storm center veered east before coming onshore. This was the case as well with Hurricane Michael and Hurricane Dorian, but it is only a matter of time before Tampa’s luck runs out.

In The Atlantic, an eighth-generation Floridian reflects on the unwillingness of Florida residents and their leaders to come to grips with the reality of climate change. “At some point, everyone — the chambers of commerce, the construction lobby, Big Agriculture, Floridians old and new — will have to acknowledge that our state is in deep peril.” An op-ed in the Washington Post suggests that rethinking how Floridians rebuild is essential to avoiding a repeat of this disaster in the future. The storm even brought the once-mythical “hurricane shark” to real life.

Writing in the New Yorker, Bill McKibben has an excellent perspective on “the storm we knew would occur.” Global warming means there is more heat on the planet, 93% of which enters the ocean. Ocean heat is the fuel of hurricanes. He notes that this physical energy has not been met with political energy, and this is going to result in a big mess in Florida. Governor De Santis stated that suggestions to prepare for climate change include “a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We are not doing any left-wing stuff.” (And don’t forget that, under the previous governor and now U.S. Senator, Rick Scott, the Florida state government famously demanded that its officials not use the words “climate change.”) Instead, as I noted after my visit to Miami, Florida real-estate markets continue to be “a game of musical chairs, and many people owning property when the music stops are going to lose a lot of money.” The area where Ian made landfall is part of the eighth-fastest-growing metro area in the United States (including the City of Cape Coral, the fastest-growing city in southwest Florida). In hard-hit Lee County, the population grew by 27% between 2010 and 2021.

In a final note on Hurricane Ian, CNN reports on the Florida town of Babcock Ranch, which bills itself as “America’s first solar-powered town.” Babcock Ranch was designed from the ground up to be powered by renewable energy and to be resilient in the face of a changing climate (including stronger hurricanes). Although the town is only 12 miles from Fort Myers, which was severely damaged by Hurricane Ian, Babcock Ranch never lost power. Even though Babcock Neighborhood School did not have the generator mandated by the state to be an official shelter, Florida used the school as a shelter anyway because the solar array kept the lights on.

Given the importance of batteries, scientists are trying to find durable, non-toxic batteries that are easy to manufacture. A Guardian article describes recent research that uses chitin from crustacean shells in pursuit of a battery made from sustainable resources. Forbes reports that the batteries in electric cars are lasting far longer than predicted (or warrantied), allowing them to have a second life after the vehicle is no longer on the road. The batteries remain viable, with perhaps 60 or 70% of usable charge, and can be used to store excess solar electricity on the grid.

Half of the monthly average rainfall for October fell on Melbourne, Australia, in just one hour, according to the Guardian. The Washington Post notes that Sydney has recorded its wettest year on record — and there are still three months to go. The New York Times also reports how the Asian monsoon is becoming stronger and less predictable due to climate change, a development that will have profound implications for the region.

The New York Times has a detailed look at the importance of summer fog in the Bay Area, and how we think climate change will impact this physical and cultural phenomenon. The answer is, we aren’t sure, but changes in our fog regime would greatly influence the region (the average daily high in San Francisco is below 70°F, making it the coolest major city in the continental United States). While coastal fog appears to be decreasing in California and around the world, the reasons for this decline aren’t clear. Fog is the most difficult meteorological phenomenon to capture, calculate and predict.

The Guardian reports that, unlike Nevada, Arizona and California, Utah has implemented few water-conservation measures in the face of the mega-drought in the West. Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles budget millions of dollars to pay residents to pull out their lawns, and water cops patrol neighborhood streets to make sure everyone is following the rules. But in Utah, driven in large part by the Mormon belief that they are to “make the desert bloom,” lush lawns are fed by millions of gallons of potable water as the Great Salt Lake shrinks. As the drought continues, the city of Coalinga in central California is facing the prospect of running out of water. The Washington Post reports that the city relies exclusively on water from the federal water project, and as allocations decline the city is facing a deficit of water. Buying supplemental water on the open market will cost 25% of the city’s annual budget.

Bill McKibben examines recent testimony from Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, which McKibben describes as the largest bank in human history. Dimon told Congress that, rather than facilitating a transition away from fossil fuels, his organization will be supporting the expansion of fossil-fuel production in the coming decade. He stated that a plan to phase out fossil-fuel lending would be “the road to hell for America.” As you might expect, McKibben eloquently points out that Dimon has it completely backwards.

An op-ed in the Washington Post describes a new trend across the country as older, outmoded power plants are being transformed into renewable-power stations, and that a loan program in the Inflation Reduction Act will accelerate this trend. These sites have land, access to transmission lines and communities that support these transitions. Nine such plants in Illinois are converting to solar-power stations, “with one facility alone hosting 190,000 solar panels on 500 acres, enough to generate electricity for tens of thousands of homes, plus a massive battery for periods when the sun isn’t shining.” The largest coal-fired power plant in New England, in Somerset, Massachusetts, is being transformed into a factory to make undersea electricity cable for offshore-wind turbines while also serving as a grid connection for the turbines. Similarly, oil-drilling rigs are being used to develop new geothermal wells for electricity generation. According to its backers, one effort in Oklahoma will make the state the “Geothermal Capitol of the Nation.”

Yale Climate Connections reports on a demonstration project in Massachusetts where solar panels have been added to a highway sound wall. The company that designed the system notes that this application of solar can be made on thousands of miles of sound barriers around the country, offsetting the costs of these structures without using additional urban land for solar deployments.