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Monday, May 12, 2014

Justin Gillis, NYT: Looks like rain again. And again.

A man struggled to move a submerged vehicle after torrential rain hit the metropolitan area in Seoul in July 2013, flooding roads and homes. Credit Ahn Young-Joon/Associated Press.     
by Justin Gillis, "By Degrees," The New York Times, May 12, 2014

The acid test of a scientific theory is whether it makes predictions that eventually come true. So consider this old prediction, from a pair of researchers in Australia and New Zealand. They were summarizing the results of then-primitive computerized forecasts about global warming:

“The available evidence suggests that a warmer world is likely to experience an increase in the frequency of heavy precipitation events, associated with a more intense hydrological cycle and the increased water-holding capacity of a warmer atmosphere.”

That was published in 1995, and it was based on research going back to the 1980s. Fast forward to 2014.

In the National Climate Assessment, published last week, researchers in the United States reported that “large increases in heavy precipitation have occurred in the Northeast, Midwest and Great Plains, where heavy downpours have frequently led to runoff that exceeded the capacity of storm drains and levees, and caused flooding events and accelerated erosion.”

The future, it would seem, has arrived.

Climate is a difficult branch of science, full of ambiguities and uncertainties. But scientists can justly claim to have demonstrated some predictive skill about many of the potential implications of the human release of greenhouse gases.

Their track record actually goes back to 1896, when a Swede named Svante Arrhenius first predicted that emissions of carbon dioxide would cause the planet to warm. It took more than 80 years to be sure he was right. At roughly the same time that realization was taking hold, climate scientists running computer models of the atmosphere began to focus on the likelihood of heavier rains in a future climate.

Many people are still catching up with the science, but it is hard to miss the ubiquity of these heavy rainstorms in recent years.

People in the Florida Panhandle recently had to dodge flash floods after two feet of rain fell in 26 hours. Torrential rains caused a Washington State hillside to collapse and bury a community earlier this year. Tumultuous rainstorms and floods overwhelmed Colorado last year, and sudden floods swept through Nashville in 2010, and Atlanta in 2009.

We’re seeing a pattern here.

In the National Climate Assessment, the experts reported huge increases since the mid-20th century in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy rainstorms: up 71% in the Northeast, 37% in the Midwest and 27% in the Southeast. The effect was seen on a smaller scale west of the Mississippi River, too, even in parts of the country where the climate is drying out over all.

What led the researchers to expect this long before it actually happened?

Initially, the forecast was based on simple physics from the 19th century. As we pour carbon dioxide into the air, the lower atmosphere has to warm. As it does, it is able to hold more moisture, and as the surface of the ocean also warms, more moisture tends to evaporate from it.

In the United States, the increase in water vapor has been on the order of 3 or 4 percent since the 1970s (most of the human-caused global warming has occurred since then). That may not sound like a big jump, but the effect is enormous.

Two leading scientists, Kevin E. Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and David R. Easterling at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ran some calculations and agreed that the warming has, on average, put more than a trillion gallons of extra water into the air over the contiguous 48 states, probably closer to two trillion.

That extra water has to fall as rain or snow. But from the elementary physics, it was long unclear whether this would mean more rainy days over all, or more intense rains, or both.

It was the computer models of the climate that suggested, starting in the late 1980s, that the answer would be the latter, and so it has turned out. One way to think of it is that even with a lot of moisture in the air, conditions are not always right for rain, but when they are right, the skies have a lot more water to dump.

“It rains harder than it used to,” said Dr. Trenberth, who could not resist adding: “When it rains, it pours.”

Researchers sponsored by the Australian government were the first to really drill into the implications of the finding. In their 1995 overview paper, A. M. Fowler of the University of Auckland in New Zealand and K. J. Hennessy of Australia’s national research program warned that society needed to start thinking about the risks. They suggested toughening standards for the designs of levees and dams, and hardening roads and culverts against the possibility of more flash floods.

Society responded by ignoring them. For someone sitting in Pensacola, Fla., wondering why the roads were washed out the other day, that longstanding refusal to confront reality might be a good part of the answer.

The warming of the planet has slowed in recent years, but scientists think that is likely temporary. They expect it to get much, much warmer as this century progresses, and that can only mean that the rains will fall harder still.

So if you are still a little amazed at what these heavy downpours have been doing to communities around the country, the message from science is pretty blunt: Get used to it.

1 comment:

Patricia said...

The New York Times article focuses on the U.S., which is understandable. But there have been several very bad landslides in other countries very recently, due to heavy rains, that I think they should have mentioned.