In forensic meteorology, we are often asked whether a given weather event was “foreseeable” – in other words, whether those impacted by or involved in the event should have or could have seen it coming.
Foreseeability generally has three components when considering weather events – climatology (what is “normal”), forecast (what is expected) and communication (whether those making decisions have access to crucial information).
In many ways, climatological expectation is about timeline. Over a long enough timeline, even extreme weather events can be expected to occur.
That may sound counterintuitive, so let’s take a familiar example. If you flip a coin 20 times, what are the odds that you’ll get a run of 15 tails in a row? It doesn’t take a statistician to tell you those odds are pretty low.
But what if you flip the coin 200 times? 200 thousand times? As the number of total coin flips grows so too do the odds of seeing a run of 15 tails in a row, for no other reason than that there are more opportunities for it to occur. While a run of 15 tails would be extremely unusual within a trial of only 20 flips, it would normal and expected within a trial of 200 thousand flips. In other words, if you flip a coin 200 thousand times, you should expect to see a run of 15 tails somewhere within that trial. An event that is unusual within a short trial is actually expected within a longer one.
The same is true of extreme weather events. Take the “100-year flood”. What a meteorologist or hydrologist means when they say a “100-year flood” is an event that has a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in any given year. Over a long period of time, we would therefore expect to see such a flood occur, on average, about once every hundred years.
What “100-year flood” doesn’t mean is that a given location is “due” for such an event if the last one occurred more than 100 years ago or that it is “safe” if the last one occurred less than 100 years ago. Every year, the odds are the same: 1-in-100.
The expectation of a given event (from a statistical, climatological perspective) does not change based on past weather. A “100-year flood” is just as likely to occur next year as it was last year.
Go back to the coin flip example: If you have a correctly balanced coin, each flip carries 1-in-2 odds of showing tails. Even if you flip 10 tails in a row, the 11th flip carries the exact same odds of coming up tails: 1-in-2. It may feel like you’re “due” for heads after 10 tails in a row, but that’s psychology speaking not statistics.
What does change after an extreme weather event is knowledge among the affected population. Once an extreme event occurs, people know 1) that it can happen, and 2) what the impacts are. So while the occurrence of one extreme event does not shift the climatological expectation for when a similar event will recur (e.g. suffering through a “100-year flood” this year doesn’t mean you’re safe next year), it can impact the foreseeability of a similar event. After all, people know that it can happen because they’ve already seen it happen.
The fact that a given weather event is within climatological expectations doesn’t necessarily make it foreseeable for the affected population. The weather-related impacts that population could reasonably have anticipated depend on a number of factors, including the weather forecast and impacts statements, as well as how that information was disseminated to the public and/or decision makers.
Weather forecasts, especially for major events, are generally quite good and have improved significantly over the past several decades. Anyone not living under a rock is unlikely to get surprised by a hurricane or a heat wave. Even the warning lead-time for tornadoes is up to an average of 13 minutes – plenty of time to take shelter if you get the warning. (We’ll return to that “if” in a moment.)
That said, sometimes meteorologists get it wrong. Small changes to atmospheric conditions can have major impacts on how a weather event evolves (that proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil). When there is significant uncertainty in a forecast, meteorologists try to express it. However, scientific uncertainty is a nuanced thing, and often the uncertainty statements are the first thing to get stripped for the headlines. So while meteorologists and decision makers with direct access to them may understand the forecast uncertainty and its implications, the general public may not.
Remember when Hurricane Irma was definitely going to wipe Miami off the map? Neither do I, because at no point during Irma’s evolution was an impact on the southeast FL coast a sure and immanent thing. But “Miami About to be Obliterated!” makes a far more clickable headline than “landfall near Miami looking possible, but storm could still swing further west or east”.
Which brings us to the final crucial piece in foreseeability: information access.
Even if a given weather event is within the climatological norms; even if the forecast is close to perfect, with uncertainty and potential impacts clearly and understandably communicated – even then a weather event can be “unforeseeable”.
If the people impacted by the weather event do not have access to or should not be reasonably expected to seek out forecast information, the event may not have been foreseeable. For example, every few years, hikers are injured or killed in the desert southwest when flash floods turn dusty arroyos into raging rivers.
That last question is arguably more difficult and is where forensic meteorology largely bows out of the discussion.
A forensic meteorologist can tell you whether a given event was climatologically unusual, whether the forecasts leading up to the event were accurate, and how that forecast information was disseminated.
But whether those who were impacted should have ultimately “seen it coming” is a more complex issue.
What if different forecasts disagreed? If a truly extreme event was forecasted, is it reasonable for people to think the forecast was exaggerated? What is reasonable ignorance or incredulity in this age of information-overload and often hyperbole? If someone has access to forecast information, should they be expected to actively seek it out? Should they be expected to act on it?
These are often the types of questions that arise in weather-related investigations and disputes. What starts out as a series of relatively straightforward meteorological questions ultimately winds into a complex web of human psychology and societal and cultural expectations.
The meteorological science is a crucial component of such investigations, but developing a rigorous and comprehensive understanding of the situation requires cross-disciplinary collaboration and communication. The weather is where the questions start, but not necessarily where they end.
If you are involved in a weather-related investigation and would like to discuss how a forensic meteorologist could support that work, please reach out to Blue Skies Meteorological Services for a free, no-obligation consultation.
Between 1963 and 2012, only 11% of tropical cyclone (hurricane and tropical storm) deaths were due directly to the wind. Yes, hurricane-force winds can be frighteningly destructive and frankly awe-inspiring, but when the numbers are tallied, water is undeniably the deadlier threat. Combined, storm surge, inland flooding due to heavy rains, and high surf are responsible for 88% of tropical cyclone deaths. The storm surge alone kills nearly half of all people who lose their lives during these events.
The reasons for this are simple but not necessarily obvious.
Especially in areas with modern building codes and construction, structures can withstand long duration strong winds. Even when structures are significantly damaged by debris or the wind itself, they continue to offer some shelter and protection from the wind. This is why people in the path of a tornado are advised not to jump in their car and drive away but rather to shelter in place in an interior room on the lowest floor. The roof can be ripped off a building and the exterior walls toppled, yet a tiny bathroom or closet often remains intact and offers a pocket of safety amidst the chaos.
Water is different. It rises inexorably, under doors and through windows. No room is safe. Entire neighborhoods are engulfed at once – there is no accessible safe haven once the water begins to rise. Storm surge water seethes with debris, from toxic waste to power lines to floating vehicles. And unlike the wind, which weakens quickly as a storm departs, storm surge and inland floodwaters can engulf a region for days to weeks. Those who don’t drown during the storm are often trapped without water or food until rescue personnel arrive, and when the impacted area is large and damage is extensive, rescue can be slow coming.
If you were watching news coverage as Hurricane Matthew marched menacingly up the east coast of Florida earlier this month, you probably noticed that meteorologists and local officials were focusing far more on the potential for unprecedented storm surge than on the storm’s maximum winds, despite Matthew being a Category 3 or 4 storm with winds up to 145 mph at times. Major Florida cities along the Atlantic coast and along the St. John’s River (which empties into the Atlantic Ocean just east of Jacksonville, FL) were threatened by a storm surge unseen for at least a century.
Matthew was a major hurricane with destructive winds, but it was the water, not the wind, that led governors, mayors, meteorologists, and emergency managers alike to issue impassioned pleas for those in the path of the storm to evacuate. Like hurricanes Sandy, Ike, and Katrina before it, Matthew testified to the fact wind tells only part of the story of a cyclone’s destructive power.
The rest of that story, and the far deadlier chapters, are told by water.
And starting this year, emergency managers, public officials, and the general public have another tool to evaluate the impact of that water on their communities. Developed by the National Weather Service and made operational for the 2016 hurricane season, Potential Storm Surge Flooding Maps are specific to each tropical cyclone and show a reasonable worst-case scenario for storm surge inundation at the neighborhood level. In other words, it shows the storm surge heights that a person should prepare for before a storm, given the uncertainties in the meteorological forecast.
The Potential Storm Surge Flooding Maps are based on the existing National Weather Service (NWS) Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model. (Modeling involves a dizzying and inescapable array of acronyms.) The SLOSH model takes into account forecast uncertainty and, when run as an ensemble, provides an envelope of possible storm surge outcomes based on the current forecast.
Ensemble modeling involves running a model (or group of models) many different times, each time with small differences in the initial conditions or model assumptions. For the SLOSH model, these differences represent plausible futures for the track and intensity of the hurricane given current observations and historical forecast errors. The result is a set of possible storm surge scenarios, with each member of the set representing a slightly different hurricane track and intensity.
Once this set – or “ensemble” – is assembled, it is analyzed statistically to determine a reasonable worst-case storm surge scenario at each location, and the depth of that storm surge is displayed on the Potential Storm Surge Flooding Maps. In this instance, “reasonable worst-case” is defined as that storm surge depth which has a 1-in-10 chance of being exceeded at each location. (In other words, at any given location, there is a 90% chance that the actual storm surge will be less than or equal to what is displayed on the map, given the current forecast.)
The Potential Storm Surge Flooding Maps are a valuable visual tool to assess storm surge risk as a tropical cyclone approaches land. The SLOSH model that forms the basis of the maps takes into account the factors most critical in determining storm surge:
However, the potential storm surge flooding map does not take into account a number of factors that do not impact storm surge directly but that nonetheless greatly impact overall flooding and water damage. The maps do not account for:
Wave action can significantly increase the impact of storm surge along the immediate coast, overtopping seawalls and sandbags where the storm surge alone would not. The potential storm surge flooding maps show only the potential storm surge – they do not provide any information about expected wave height. In many cases, the height of waves riding atop the storm surge can exceed the height of the storm surge itself.
Information about expected wave height and wave action impacts can be found in hurricane-related text products from the National Weather Service, including the local area forecast discussions and hazards and impacts statements. Interests along the coast and in areas protected by levees should pay particular attention to the impacts of wave action and weigh those impacts in addition to the direct impacts of the storm surge when making hurricane preparations.
Freshwater and Inland Flooding
Flash flooding, areal flooding, and river flooding due to excessive rainfall are responsible for over one quarter of all tropical cyclone-related deaths and can impact areas far inland and outside of the storm surge risk area. Hurricanes and tropical storms can dump tremendous amounts of rain in a short period of time. Even weak tropical systems can produce devastating amounts of rain. For example, the remnants of Tropical Storm Amelia in 1978 flooded central Texas with four feet of rain. Interests in low-lying areas prone to flooding and along creeks and rivers expected to be impacted by a tropical system should pay careful attention to rainfall forecasts and expected impacts.
Forecasting the protection offered by levees during a tropical cyclone is complex and difficult, as Hurricane Katrina tragically demonstrated in 2005. Wave action, the depth and speed of the storm surge, and the strength and construction of the levees all influence the amount of protection they provide. Interests living in leveed areas need to remain especially vigilant as a tropical cyclone approaches, and consider all relevant risks, not just those posed by the storm surge.
The potential storm surge flooding maps issued during Hurricane Matthew’s approach of Florida’s east coast offered a clear and dire assessment of the risk for unprecedentedly severe storm surge inundation.
The maps for Hurricane Matthew were so dire because the worst-case scenario was squarely within the cone of uncertainty. It wasn’t just possible. It was likely that locations along the east coast and the St. John’s River would be under several feet or more of water if the hurricane continued to hug the coast or made landfall in northeast Florida or southeast Georgia.
More than just the beaches were under threat. The potential storm surge flooding maps showed areas along the St. Johns River — inland regions that don’t typically think of themselves as vulnerable to storm surge –- under up to 6 feet of water as Matthew pushed a wall of water at the coast and up the mouth of the St. Johns. Although the worst-case scenario fortunately did not materialize, reports were still received of the St. Johns River flowing backwards on the morning of Saturday, October 8th, as storm surge and hurricane-force onshore winds pushed the sea inland.
“Fortunately” is the correct word in this situation, because it was nothing more or less than luck that prevented a truly worst-case scenario from actualizing. Had Matthew drifted 20 miles farther the west, the Atlantic coast of Florida, and inland river cities like Jacksonville and Palatka would have experienced truly devastating flooding.
The National Weather Service’s new potential storm surge flooding maps provide a graphical, easy-to-understand, quantitative assessment of storm surge risk along the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coasts. By displaying a reasonable worst-case scenario at each location, they show both local officials and the general public the storm surge depth for which they should prepare themselves, enabling well-informed preparation and evacuation decisions.
However, these maps are not intended to offer a complete picture of water-related risks associated with tropical cyclones. They do not take into account wave action (i.e. waves riding atop the storm surge), rainfall-induced flooding, or potential levee failures. These impacts must be considered separately when assessing the impact of a hurricane or tropical storm in a given area.
And, as always, the output of any model is only as good as its input.
Ultimately, the accuracy of the potential storm surge flooding maps depends on the accuracy of the hurricane track and intensity forecast. Those forecasts – and the storm surge inundation maps derived from them – are continually refined as new data from in-situ and remote sensing platforms (like hurricane hunter aircraft measurements and satellite imagery, respectively) as well as new model guidance become available.
Ah, springtime – the season when life, greenery, and sandals return to the land and towering storms return to the sky.
Severe weather is already visiting parts of the southern Plains this year (including Oklahoma and Texas), and it will soon begin its annual march northward across the country as winter gives way to spring and summer.
Severe storms are fueled by the tremendous energy of an unstable atmosphere, where cold air vies with warm in a perennial battle for territory. Storms fire up and ride along the front lines – sentinels flashing, booming, blowing, and occasionally swirling their way across the landscape. For this reason, there really is no true, nationwide severe storm season – that clash of warm and cold air masses occurs at different times of year across different regions of the country, resulting in regionally variable storm climatologies.
Typically, storm season ramps up first in the South, where warm air returns earliest (or never really leaves): the Gulf Coast states experience severe storms, including hail and tornadoes, every month of the year. During late winter and early spring, severe storms in the South are usually triggered by strong cold fronts that also bring heavy snow and ice to more northern latitudes.
As March slides into April and May, the southern Plains see the annual resurgence of supercell severe storms, fed by warm Gulf moisture pulled northward on southerly spring breezes and triggered by strong midlatitude storm systems that sweep out of the Rockies. Supercells – a specific type of thunderstorm that is highly organized, long-lived, and characterized by a persistent region of rotation (the mesocyclone) – are responsible for some of the world’s most damaging severe weather, including almost all significant tornadoes (EF2 or greater) and most giant hail.
During June and July, the jet stream shifts northward, steering storm systems (and their accompanying entourage of thunderstorms) into the northern Plains and upper Midwest, where storm season peaks in mid-summer.
But don’t get too attached to the timeline – severe weather doesn’t respect the notion of a “season” and can strike well outside the boundaries of what’s considered the climatological norm, as winter tornado outbreaks so destructively illustrate.
Because of that variability in when severe weather strikes, it’s an excellent idea to remain storm ready throughout the year. However, that first window-rattling rumble of thunder in the spring can certainly provide a little extra motivation and a helpful sense of urgency. Below are some essential storm preparations to ensure that you and your family are ready to weather the storm (pun intended).
Trees are beautiful, stately, and attract a wonderful diversity of wildlife. Deciduous trees are also great for your utility bill: providing leafy shade in the summer and allowing the sun to warm your home unimpeded during winter. But if not properly cared for, they can become highly efficient house- and car-crushers during wind storms.
Before the howling winds of spring start blowing across your newly leafed-out trees, call in a reputable arborist or tree trimming company to remove unhealthy limbs and trees and to shape healthy trees to be more wind-resistant. Services typically cost a couple hundred dollars (for basic limb removal) to a couple thousand dollars (for removal of entire trees), and are ideally performed every 3-5 years. A few hundred bucks in preventative maintenance now can save you not only your insurance deductible but also the hassle of major car and home repair.
Speaking of insurance, now is the perfect time to make sure you have enough and the right type of insurance. Dust off your insurance policy documentation – or better yet, call your insurance agent for a comprehensive review of your policy. Is your deductible affordable in your current financial situation? The purpose of having insurance is to use it when you need it, so make sure your deductible is an amount you can afford to pay should your home or vehicle sustain damage.
Review your coverage amounts for the structure and its contents – if the worst happens, will your insurance policy pay enough for you to repair or replace your house and belongings? Know whether you have replacement coverage (i.e. the insurance policy will pay for a brand new item equivalent to what was lost) or whether your policy covers only the depreciated value (i.e. the value of a used item equivalent in age, wear and tear to what was lost). Is the type of coverage you have what you need? Have you recently purchased any high-value items that might need to be insured separately as valuable personal property?
Consider purchasing flood insurance if you haven’t already. Standard homeowners’ policies do not cover flooding, whether from severe storms (flash flooding), prolonged rain (areal flooding), snowmelt, hurricanes, or even sewer back-ups. With an average flood insurance claim of $42,000, that’s not a check you’re going to want to write.
You don’t have to live in a designated floodplain to experience flooding – a third of all federal disaster assistance for flooding goes to people outside of mapped high-risk areas. In fact, if you don’t live in a flood plain, you’re likely to get a preferred rate on your flood insurance policy ($35/mo is the average premium for low-to-moderate risk properties). Flood insurance is offered through the federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and can be purchased through your insurance agent.
What you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you. This is especially true when it comes to severe weather. As technology becomes ever more sophisticated, the channels through which we can receive about information about wicked weather headed our way has rapidly expanded.
Despite the myriad new options, a NOAA weather radio is still an easy, relatively inexpensive, and extremely reliable means of receiving weather alerts even when you’re not by your TV, phone, or computer. There isn’t one brand of weather radio – instead, NOAA maintains a network of radio stations broadcasting information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office, including forecasts and weather warnings. These stations broadcast on a fixed set of frequency channels, and any commercially-available emergency radio worth buying will come pre-programmed with them.
When comparing weather radios, look for those that:
For those whose cell phones have become a fifth appendage, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) put critical information right in the palm of your hand. WEA messages are overseen by the FCC and include Amber alerts, presidential messages, and weather warnings. Many if not most newer cell phones are already capable of receiving them. Participation in the WEA program is voluntary but also widespread among mobile carriers. If your phone is WEA-capable, you can choose which WEA messages you receive (with the exception of presidential messages, which are mandatory), so check for instructions specific to your phone make/model to ensure that WEA weather alerts are enabled.
Another mobile device solution is the use of apps. A wide variety of apps will send you a text or alert you through the app itself if hazardous weather is headed your way. The National Weather Service maintains a list of apps, and you can check around for other options. Be aware, though, that cell phone service can be interrupted during and after a major storm – it’s wise to have a back-up means of receiving weather information in case cell service is disrupted.
Once you know a storm is coming, what are you going to do? The National Weather Service’s Weather-Ready Nation campaign and The Department of Homeland Security’s ready.gov have resources for a number of specific weather hazards, including thunderstorms, tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. Read through the information for the weather hazards that can impact your area, and formalize a storm plan for each. Make sure everyone in your family knows what the plans are, and practice the plans, especially if you have small children. Some things to consider: where will you go during a severe thunderstorm or tornado, when a hurricane threatens, when floodwaters rise? How are you going to get information as the weather unfolds? Where do you keep your storm kit?
Speaking of storm kits – it’s a really good idea to have one and to keep it in or near your storm shelter (i.e. basement; lowest-level interior, windowless room; or safe room). If you already have a storm kit: excellent! Time to check and refresh the supplies. If you don’t already have a storm kit, it’s time to put one together. Ready.gov and Weather Underground both have thorough checklists for building a basic storm/disaster kit.
At a minimum, storm kits should include food and water, a first aid kit, medicine, sanitation products, supplies to shelter in place (tarps, duct tape, etc), gloves, basic tools for turning off utilities, flashlights, a portable radio, extra batteries, signals for help (whistle, flare, etc), and infant and pet supplies if applicable. You can expand your kit to include other useful but not necessarily critical supplies based on your own needs.
We know it’s a lot to think about, but preparing now — before severe weather strikes — will save time, money, and heartache down the line. At a minimum, you’ll have peace of mind knowing you’ve mitigated against preventable damage, planned how you’ll ride out the storm and its aftermath, and insured your property against loss. And if storm season happens not to spare you this year, you’ll have much more than just peace of mind. You’ll have the tools needed to weather the storm.
A bolt from the blue. A rogue wave.
As anyone who has lived on planet Earth for more than a few seasons can attest, nature is full of surprises.
Lightning usually strikes near the core of a thunderstorm, but occasionally it will strike more than 20 miles away, arcing across an otherwise peaceful sky. Ocean swells on a placid sea tend to be of a similar height, but rarely, a rogue wave many times the average height can appear suddenly, damaging or devouring any ship unlucky enough to be in its path.
Bolts from the blue and freak waves are just two examples of variability and chaos in nature. Here chaos describes a sensitive dependence on initial conditions – the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in Africa that leads to a hurricane over the Bahamas. If the surface temperature had been just slightly cooler, that bolt from the blue would have sliced the air directly under the storm. If winds over the ocean had been just a tad bit different, that rogue wave would never have formed.
It is due to this chaos that atmospheric scientists so often speak in terms of probabilities and distributions (as frustrating as that can be to folks who just want to know whether a rain shower will or will not do the work of watering their lawn this weekend – I promise if we knew, we’d tell you).
The chaotic nature of the weather leads to variability both between events and within a single event. Thunderstorms are a perfect example: no two thunderstorms are alike, and each storm changes from moment to moment.
To describe such variability, we typically speak of averages and deviations from that average. For thunderstorms, we can describe the average peak thunderstorm wind for an area – say 40 mph for summer afternoon thunderstorms in north-central Florida. However, peak winds in exceptionally strong thunderstorms have been recorded at over 70 mph in this region, while winds in weaker storms may not exceed 25 mph. And within a storm that produces a 70 mph gust, winds are not sustained at that speed throughout the event. The sustained wind speed within such a storm averaged over a 2-minute period may only be 45 mph.
Building codes typically ensure that structures and infrastructure are built to withstand expected conditions for a given area – roofs in snowy areas must be able to withstand a higher load than in areas without snow; structures in hurricane-prone regions must be able to withstand higher winds; structures in seismically active areas must be able to withstand earthquakes. It’s generally not average conditions that cause damage – it’s the exceptions, those events that vary greatly from what is normal and expected.
In the case of thunderstorm wind damage, it’s the gusts. How gusty winds are during a given event depends on a number of factors, but mostly on the surrounding terrain: the rougher the terrain, the gustier the winds. Winds are far gustier in the center of a city, surrounded by skyscrapers and densely packed buildings of many sizes than in a smooth, open farm field.
To illustrate, given a weather station measurement of the 1-minute average wind speed, we would expect peak 3-second wind gusts in the heart of a major city to be nearly 250% higher than that average speed, while peak wind gusts over open farmland would be less than 50% higher.
The orientation of landscape features to the wind direction also impacts wind speed and gustiness. For coastal areas, this is particularly noticeable. Onshore winds – those that have blown unimpeded over a lake or ocean – tend to be stronger and steadier, all else being equal, than winds that have blown over a rough landscape (say, across a large metropolitan area). Similarly, winds blowing parallel to city streets tend to be felt more strongly than those blowing perpendicular.
When evaluating weather station data to determine the peak wind speed associated with a given event, we must consider the location of the weather station. Is it a rural site or an urban site? What is the terrain like surrounding the station? Are there certain directions from which the wind would be more impeded or would be blowing over rougher terrain?
How does the weather station site compare to the site at which damage was reported? Is the surrounding terrain similar? Was damage reported at an elevated location – for example, the roof of a high-rise building, where winds tend to be stronger? Differences in both roughness and height must be considered.
Also of obvious importance in the evaluation of winds associated with tropical cyclones and thunderstorms is estimation of the relative strength of the system when it impacted the weather station versus the damage site. If the damage site was directly impacted by the core of a severe thunderstorm while the nearest weather station experienced only a glancing blow, we would expect the winds experienced at the damage site to be stronger than those recorded at the weather station.
Evaluation of these considerations – location, orientation, height, and roughness – allows forensic meteorologists to estimate peak wind speeds from measured average wind speeds and to evaluate the extent to which a given weather station is an accurate proxy for the site at which damage was reported. The weather station data is just the beginning.
“The devil is in the details.” Nowhere is this truer than in the beautifully chaotic weather, where details determine outcomes.
If you or a client experienced wind damage and need an estimate of the wind speed associated with that weather event, call or email Blue Skies Meteorological Services for a free consultation.
What does a birthday mean? A major birthday – the type that warrants a card declaring your exact new age, possibly by spelling it out in macabre black balloons – what does it mean? Why do we care?
It’s not like you wake up on the morning of your birthday feeling dramatically older than when you went to bed. A decade’s worth of wrinkles don’t suddenly appear on your face. Yet you are older, and on your birthday, you are acutely aware of that fact.
A major birthday reminds you that life is short and you don’t have forever to act. It reminds you of all you’ve done and all you have left to do. Then it starts playing the Final Jeopardy countdown music in your ear. Time is ticking. Better get busy.
Reaching a global average carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration of 400 ppm is that type of milestone, and we passed it in March. To put 400 ppm in perspective, consider that maximum pre-industrial CO2 levels were 280 ppm and that 350 ppm is widely considered the upper limit to avoid truly dramatic climate change. Consider that CO2 levels haven’t been as high as 400 ppm in several million years, when the world was much hotter and the oceans much higher than they are today.
Yet, besides the climate scientists who marked the passing of 400 ppm with a mixture of dismay, anger, and sad resignation, few others seem to have noticed (well, besides the United States military who consider climate change a national security risk and key business and insurance leaders who are already taking action to adapt). Nationally and internationally, we’re certainly not getting busy.
It’s as if we believe that if we don’t acknowledge what’s happening, it won’t happen. As if staying in bed with your eyes closed on your birthday somehow stays the hands of time.
But time doesn’t stand still just because we avoid clocks and mirrors – just as CO2 concentrations continue to increase whether we acknowledge it broadly and publicly or not. Of course, the critical difference between the inexorable forward march of time and the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere is that we can actually do something about greenhouse gas concentrations.
We very likely can’t undo what we’ve already done (the technology just doesn’t exist to capture and indefinitely store vast quantities of atmospheric CO2). But we can slow down and eventually stop emitting new greenhouse gases, if only we muster the foresight to recognize and the willpower to address a large, costly, complex, global problem that will only get larger, more costly, and more complex with each year of procrastinated action.
Failing to even acknowledge the passage of the 400 ppm milestone doesn’t bode well, though.
So what does 400 ppm mean? What is this new world we’ve created for ourselves and our progeny?
Well, for one thing, 400 ppm means we’ve committed to major climate change – to what we’re already experiencing and more. The average residence time of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere is hundreds to thousands of years, so even if we stopped emitting CO2 tomorrow, our climate would continue to warm toward a 400 ppm equilibrium.
Of course, we can’t put the brakes on instantaneously. If you’re traveling 100 mph down the highway and slam on the breaks, you keep traveling forward as you slow to a stop. A shift to renewable energy and carbon-neutral fuels, like stopping a speeding car, takes time, and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will continue to increase during that shift.
Right now, though, we’re mashing on the accelerator rather than the brakes. With the exception of 1990-2000, each decade has seen an increase in the rate of CO2 emissions. Not only are we continuing to emit carbon dioxide – we’re emitting it faster and faster each year. If we continue along our current trajectory, we’re on pace for greater than 3° C warming, and that’s just the increase in average temperature. Extremes in both temperature and precipitation tend to increase more dramatically than their respective averages.
Such climatic changes would decrease crop yields and alter agricultural zones, decrease water availability while simultaneously increasing demand, inundate coastal areas with rising seas, extend the season and range of numerous pests and insect-borne diseases, increase heat stress and heat-related illness, and increase the frequency and intensity of flooding rainfall, among many other impacts.
400 ppm means that aspects of our environment that have been our touchstones for thousands of years – food and water availability, weather and climate – will shift in unprecedented ways. The ideal locations for cities, farmland, roads, factories, homes, and military assets will modify. Processes and procedures that have been reliable will become uncertain.
In short: the assumptions upon which we have built our societies may cease to be valid.
Although some progress toward mitigation (emissions reduction) and adaptation has been made on the local level both domestically and internationally, the sort of global-scale agreement and action required to alter our current emissions trajectory remains elusive. Emissions will therefore continue to rise, and the climate will continue to shift. Governments, industries, and individuals will be increasingly impacted by a variable and changing climate, and given the lack of coordinated effort to date, the unfortunate reality is that we must prepare to protect our own interests, assets, and welfare.
Businesses and insurers looking to take the long view of their investments, infrastructure, supply chains, and insured properties need to be aware of climatic changes that impact vulnerability. Blue Skies Meteorological Services is here to help these clients understand and mitigate their climate-related risk and exposure. Contact us at email@example.com for more information.