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Social Cost of Carbon Update

We know that emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere causes climate change. We also know that climate change is causing damage, and that it will cause even greater damage in the future. But how much damage? Can anybody put a dollar sign on the cost?

That is just what a group called the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon (IWGSCGG) tries to do. The task is especially difficult because the damage caused by carbon dioxide does not occur when it is first emitted. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for 80-100 years, and it continues to cause global warming the whole time it is there. The damages from carbon dioxide emitted today will continue to accrue over the entire 80-100 years. As the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise, climate change will accelerate, and the damage it causes will increase. Thus, a metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted in 2050 is expected to cause more damage than a ton emitted in 2010.

First the numbers, then some background on what it means. The IWGSCGG uses several different methods to estimate the future costs of carbon emissions. Then they average the estimates and adjust them for inflation back to 2007 dollars. In calculations of this sort, the assumed inflation rate often has a large effect on the outcome.

Table 1. Data source: IWGSCGG 2016

In Table 1, the left column represents years in which a ton of CO2 might be emitted. The next three columns each assume a different inflation rate. The column on the far right represents similar information as the 3.0% Discount Average column, except instead of taking the average damage cost estimate, they took the 95th percentile. The idea is that, if inflation is 3.0%, the odds are 95% that the cost of the damage will be no higher than the values in this column.

The 3% discount rate is the one the author’s adopt as their most likely scenario. So, to say this data in plain English:

The most plausible estimate of the damage caused by each metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere in 2010 is $31. The damage caused by each metric ton emitted in 2015 is $36, and for each metric ton emitted in 2020 it will be $42, and for each metric ton emitted 2050 it will be $69.

Compared to estimates made in 2013, the damages are estimated to be 1-2 dollars less per metric ton.

In 2010, the United States emitted an estimated 5,736.4 million metric tons of CO2. At $32 per metric ton, that equates to $183.6 billion. The GDP of the United States in 2010 was $14,958 billion, so the damage is roughly equal to 1.2% of our total economic output.

Why is this estimate important? Policy makers need to analyze the costs and benefits of the programs they mandate. Avoided future damage is a significant benefit, so they need to estimate how much future cost is avoided. The report suggests that the United States could spend up to $183.6 billion per year to reduce CO2 emissions, and be paid back by the damage prevented.

This report is an update of the second IWGSCGG report, issued in 2013. The cost estimates changed between reports because of increased knowledge about climate change and improvements in the computer models used to make the estimates. There is still considerable uncertainty here, but the IWGSCGG estimate may be the best estimate available.


Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases. 2016. Technical Support Document: – Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis – Under Executive Order 12866. Downloaded 3/20/2018 from https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-12/documents/sc_co2_tsd_august_2016.pdf.

For U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: EPA > Climate Change > Emissions > National Data, http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/usinventoryreport.html.

For U.S. GDP: Bureau of Economic Analysis > National Economic Accounts > Current Dollar and “Real” GDP (Excel Spreadsheet). http://www.bea.gov/national/index.htm#gdp.

Three Effects of Climate Change

This post will focus on a few articles published recently that highlight effects that climate change is already having around the world. Though the phenomena studied in them occurred far away, they will have important consequences for us here in the USA, and even in Missouri.

Climate Change Causes Migration

Human migration into Europe has become a large political and humanitarian problem. European countries have been struggling to provide the basic services that the migrants need, and to find ways to integrate them into society. The problem of immigration has been one of the forces leading to Brexit, and to the upsurge in right-wing populism around the world (including here in America).

Missirian and Schlenker (2017) studied European asylum applications from 103 source countries, and found that the number of migrants from each country related to the weather in that country. In colder countries, when the temperature decreased, asylum applications increased. Conversely, in hot countries, when the temperature increased, asylum applications increased, and they did so in a non-linear fashion – small increases in temperature could lead to large increases in applications. Far more migrants have come to the EU from hot countries (Africa, the Middle East) than from cold countries, thus the temperature increase is the more important effect.

Figure 1. Predicted Change in Asylum Applications by Change in Temperature. Source: Missirian and Schlenker 2017.

Holding everything else constant, Figure 1 shows the predicted increase in asylum applications by change in temperature. The red line shows the predicted increase, the shaded areas show the 90% and 99% confidence intervals. The blue line at the top should be read against the right vertical axis, and it represents the probability that asylum applications will increase. The more temperature increases, the more asylum applications are predicted to increase. Under the high emissions scenario, by the end of the century, applications are predicted to increase by 188%.

The study didn’t include migration into the USA from countries south of our border, but I suspect that the basic findings would apply here, as well. In fact, I already reported (here) that in 2014 the CNA Military Advisory Board concluded that climate change would become one of the most significant threats to national security faced by our nation. Climate change would lead to increased migration around the world, which would lead to political instability, which would cause conflicts to break out. Given the difficulty that Europe is having coping with the current problem, and that the problem could nearly triple in size by the end of the century, the Military Advisory Board’s conclusion doesn’t seem too far off. (May, 2014)

The Shrimp Are Gone From Maine

Figure 2. Source: Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission 2017.

Northern Shrimp are a species of shrimp that require cold water in order to spawn. Maine has been the southern limit of their historical habitat, and they have represented a small but valuable fishery for New England states. Since 2012, the total biomass of shrimp estimated by the Gulf of Maine Summer Shrimp Survey have been the lowest on record. (Figure 2) Managers have closed the waters to shrimp fishing from 2014-2018 in an attempt to prevent shrimp from being completely eliminated from Maine waters. (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 2017)





The primary cause of the decline is climate change. Ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Main have increased at a rate of about 0.5°F per year – that is incredibly fast, almost 8 times faster than the global rate. Figure 3 shows the data. The blue lines show the 15-day average water temperature anomaly in the Gulf of Maine from 1980 to 2015. The black dots show the average annual temperature anomaly, and the dashed line shows the trend over the whole time period. The red line shows the trend for the decade from 2005 to 2015.

It is easy to see that the ocean has been warming. The shrimp don’t spawn well in the warmer water, so they are dying out. (Evans-Brown, 2014)

The warmer temperatures have affected more than shrimp. As temperature has increased, cod have also declined, to the point that they are now commercially extinct in the New England fishery. With the cod, a failure to recognize the effect of global warming caused fishery regulators to keep the permitted catch at a high level that could not be sustained, and they were basically fished out out existence. The moratorium on shrimp fishing is an attempt to prevent a similar occurrence. (Pershing et al 2015)

Fishing, especially off New England, was the first colonial industry when Europeans came to America. Over the past century, several species have collapsed and no longer support viable commercial fishing: Atlantic halibut, ocean perch, haddock, and yellowtail flounder. These once fed millions of Americans. No more. Even the venerable Atlantic cod, once so numerous that it was said you could walk from America to England stepping on their backs, are commercially extinct. We are killing the oceans. More below. (NOAA Fisheries Service, 2017)

Global Warming Is Ravaging Coral Reefs

To live, coral requires a symbiotic relationship with certain species of algae. Coral bleaching occurs when stressful conditions cause the algae to be expelled from the coral, which then turns white. If algae don’t reenter the coral quickly enough, the coral will starve to death.

Figure 4. Temporal Patterns of Coral Bleaching. Source: Hughes et al., 2018.

Before global warming, bleaching events were relatively rare, and reefs had enough time to recover between them. Scientists looked at 100 reefs globally and found that the average interval between bleaching events is now less than half of what it was previously. It is now only 6 years, which is not enough time for recovery. Figure 4 shows the findings. Chart A in the figure shows the number of locations experiencing bleaching events in a given year. You can see that the trend increases left to right, and that the worst years have all occurred in the most recent 2 decades. Chart B in the figure shows the cumulative number of locations that have remained free of bleaching over the time period in blue, and the total cumulative number of bleaching events in red. You can see that, over time, none of the locations have escaped bleaching, and that the number of bleaching events has topped 600. Chart C shows the frequency of bleaching events at individual locations. Almost 30 locations have experienced 3 severe bleaching events, and a similar number have experienced 8 or more bleaching events in total. Chart D counts intervals between bleaching events, and how many times each interval occurred. It used to be (1980-1999) that the most common interval was 10-12 years. Recently, however (2000-2016), an interval of 4-6 years was the most common. (Hughes et al 2018, Pols 2017) Thus, the data show that bleaching has spread to the point that none of the locations escaped it altogether, almost 1/3 of them have experienced 8 bleaching events of some kind, almost 1/3 have experienced 3 severe events, and the most common interval between events has shrunk to half of what it was previously.

The main culprit is global warming. Coral survives only in a relatively narrow temperature band, and if the water temperature rises too high, bleaching occurs. Temperatures have, indeed, risen. As noted above in the section on the Gulf of Maine, in some places they have increased incredibly quickly.

Coral reefs are like oases. In the desert, oases are separated by vast distances where life is scarce. Similarly, coral reefs are often separated by vast distances where life is scarce. Reefs, however, support thousands of species in great abundance. Though the reefs occupy less than 0.1% of the ocean’s surface, they support at least 25% of all marine species. (NOAA Fisheries Service 2018)

These phenomena, though occurring far away, are all signs that the basic systems that support life on this planet as we know it are in danger. If we think that they could not collapse, we are seriously kidding ourselves. They may be collapsing already. If we dream that we will somehow escape being affected, we need to wake up.


Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. 2017. Northern Shrimp Species Profile. Viewed online 2/6/2018 at http://www.asmfc.org/species/northern-shrimp.

Evans-Brown, Sam. “Gulf of Maine Is Warming Faster Than Most of World’s Oceans.” New Hampshire Public Radio. Viewed online 2/6/2018 at http://nhpr.org/post/gulf-maine-warming-faster-most-worlds-oceans.

Hughes, Terry P., Kristen D. Anderson, Sean R. Connolly, Scott F. Heron, James T. Kerry, Janice M. Lough, Andrew H. Baird, Julia K. Baum, Michael L. Berumen, Tom C. Bridge, Danielle C. Claar, C. Mark Eakin, James P. Gilmour, Nicholas A. J. Graham Hugo Harrison, Jean-Paul A. Hobbs, Andrew S. Hoey, Mia Hoogenboom, Ryan J. Lowe, Malcolm T. McCulloch, John M. Pandolfi, Morgan Pratchett. Verena Schoepf, Gergely Torda, Shaun K. Wilson. 2018. “Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Mass Bleaching of Corals in the Anthropocene. Science 359 (6371), 80-83.

Missirian, Anouch, and Wolfram Schlenker. (2017). “Asylum Applications Respond to Temperature Fluctuations.” Science 358 (6370), 1610-1614.

Pershing, Andrew. Michael Alexander, Christina Hernandez, Lisa Kerr, Arnault Le Bris, Katherine Mills, Janet Nye, Nicholas Record, Hillary Scanell, James Scott, Graham Sherwood, and Andrew Thomas. 2015. “Slow Adaptation in the Face of Rapid Warming Leads to Coillapse of the Gulf of Maine Cod Fishery.” Science, 350 (6262), 809-812.

NOAA Fisheries Service. 2017. Brief History of the Groundfishing Industry of New England. Viewed online 2/6/2018 at https://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/history/stories/groundfish/grndfsh1.html.

Pols, Mary. 2018. “It’s Maine Shrimp Season, Without the Shrimp.” New York Times, 12/26/2017. Downloaded 2/6/2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/26/dining/maine-shrimp-fishery-climate-change.html.

Above Average Precipitation in 2017 for Contiguous USA

2017 was the 19th wettest year on record across the contiguous USA.

Figure 1. Source: NOAA, Climate-at-a-Glance.

So says data from Climate-At-A-Glance, the data portal operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Figure 1 shows the data, with the green line representing actual yearly precipitation, and the blue line representing the trend across time. The left vertical scale shows inches of precipitation, while the right shows millimeters of precipitation. In 2017, the average precipitation across the contiguous USA was 32.21 inches, which was the 19th highest amount in the record. Over time, precipitation seems to be increasing at about 0.17 inches per decade. The trend towards more precipitation is present in the Eastern Climate Region (+0.25 inches per decade), the Southern Climate Region (+0.22 inches per decade), and the Central Climate Region (+0.22 inches per decade). It is almost absent in the Western Climate Region, however (+0.03 inches per decade). (Except where noted, data is from the Climate-at-a-Glance data portal.)

(Click on figure for larger view.)

Figure 2. Source: NOAA, Climate-at-a-Glance.

In Missouri, 2017 was the 51st wettest year on record, with 41.22 inches of precipitation. (Figure 2) This puts the year slightly above the long-term average. As expected, the variation from year-to-year is much larger than the change in precipitation over time, but since 1895 Missouri has trended towards about 0.24 inches more precipitation per decade.

The interesting thing about Missouri’s precipitation is that in each of the last 2 years, concentrated storm systems have moved across the state from southwest to northeast, roughly following the route of I-44. They have led to huge amounts of rain over periods of a couple of days, resulting in damaging flooding. (See here and here.) This pattern is the one predicted by climate change models – slightly increased precipitation occurring in heavy precipitation events, with longer, drier spells between. (Drier because increased temperatures will cause the soil to dry out more quickly.)

Table 3. Source: NOAA, Climate-at-a-Glance.

The Northern Rockies and Plains are where most of the water that flows into the Missouri River originates, and the Missouri River provides water to more Missourians than any other source. This region saw 21.17 inches of precipitation in 2017, some 0.28 inches below average. (Figure 3) As expected, the variation between years is much larger than the change over time, but here, too, precipitation has been increasing, though the change has only been +0.07 inches per decade.

What to watch for in Missouri, then, does not appear to be a decrease in average yearly precipitation, but two other issues. First, demand for water has been increasing. Will it grow to outstrip the supply? Second, climate change is causing precipitation that once fell as snow to fall as rain. This changes the timing of when the Missouri River receives the runoff. Will that affect the ability of the river to supply water to meet the demand for water? So far, these answers are not known. (For a more extended discussion, see here.)

Figure 4. Source: NOAA, Climate-at-a-Glance.

The water situation in California is more serious than it is in the Northern Rockies and Plains, Missouri, or contiguous USA. California has a monsoonal precipitation pattern, and it has regions that receive a great deal of precipitation, while other regions receive little, if any. Consequently, the state relies on snowfall during the winter, which runs off during the spring and early summer, and is collected into reservoirs. This water is then distributed around the state. Thus, the amount of water contained in the snowpack on April 1, which is when it historically started melting in earnest, has been seen to be crucial to California’s water status.

After a severe, multi-year drought, last year was a big water year in California. (Figure 4) They received huge amounts of snow during January and February. For instance, the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area received 408 inches of snow during the 2 months. (Mammoth Mountain 2018) Over the whole year California received 27.63 inches of precipitation. That is the 22nd highest amount in the record, and it is 5.24 inches more than average.

Figure 5. Source: California Data Exchange Center, Dept. of Water Resources.

Unfortunately, this winter is not being as kind to California as last year, at least not so far. December, 2017, was the 2nd driest December on record, with only 1989 being dryer. The snowpack measurements suggest that the state has only about 22% of the snowpack that is average for this time of year (Figure 5, data as of 1/22/2018, California Snowpack Survey 2018) This is echoed by data from the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which reports only 73 inches of snow to date, vs. 349.5 inches through the end of January last year. (As I write, there are a few days left in January, but it still looks like a very serious shortfall to me.)

The snowpack is also below average in the Colorado River Basin above Lake Powell, the other major source for California’s water. As of 1/28/2018, the snowpack is only 65% of the average for this date. (National Resource Conservation Service, 1/28/2018) Now, snow tends to fall during storms, and there is no predicting when the storms will come. February and March could still bring much-needed snow. But California just got out of a terrible multi-year drought, and it would be very disappointing if it went right back into another after only 1 year.

ADDENDUM: A few days after I wrote this article, the New York Times published one on the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. That city is only about 3 months from running completely out of water. This blog focuses on statistics and big pictures. If you want a perspective on what such a crisis might actually look like in an urban area, I recommend the Times article.


California Data Exchange Center, Department of Water Resources. Current Year Regional Snow Sensor Water Content Chart (PDF). Downloaded 1/22/2018 from https://cdec.water.ca.gov/water_cond.html.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. 2018. Snow Conditions and Weather: Snow History. Viewed online 1/15/2018 at NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance: U.S. Time Series, published January 2018, retrieved on January 15, 2018 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag.

Natural Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Upper Colorado River Basin SNOTEL Snowpack Update Report. Viewed online 1/28/2018 at https://wcc.sc.egov.usda.gov/reports/UpdateReport.html?textReport.

NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance: U.S. Time Series, published January 2018, retrieved on January 15, 2018 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag.

The Second Warmest Year Ever

2017 was the 2nd warmest year on record globally, and the 3rd warmest for the contiguous USA.

Figure 1. Data source: NOAA, Climate-at-a-Glance.

Figure 1 shows the average annual temperature for the Earth from 1880-2017. The chart shows the temperature as an anomaly. That means that they calculated the mean annual temperature for the whole series, and then presented the data as a deviation from that mean. Degrees Celsius are on the left vertical axis, and degrees Fahrenheit are on the right. Because the earth contains very hot regions near the equator and very cold polar regions, the actual mean temperature has relatively little meaning, and Climate-at-a Glance does not include it in their chart. (Except where noted, all data is from NOAA, Climate at a Glance.) 2016 was the highest on record, but 2017 was second. The 4 highest readings have all occurred within the last 4 years. You can see that the Earth appears to have been in a cooling trend until around 1910, then a warming trend until mid-Century, then a cooling period until the late 1960s or early 1970s, and then a warming period since 1970. Over the whole series, the warming trend has been 0.07°C per decade, which equals 0.13°F per decade. Since 1970, however, the warming has accelerated to 0.18°C per decade (0.32°F).

(Click on chart for larger view.)

Figure 2. Data source: NOAA, Climate-at-a-Glance.

Figure 2 shows the average yearly temperature for the contiguous United States from 1895 to 2017. In this chart and those that follow, the vertical axes are reversed, with °F on the left vertical axis, and °C on the right. The purple line shows the data, and the blue line shows the trend. 2017 was the 3rd highest in the record at 54.58°F. The 4 highest readings have all come within the last 6 years. Over time, the average temperature has increased 0.15°F per decade. Since 1970, however, the rate has increased to 0.52°F per decade.


Figure 3. Data source: NOAA, Climate-at-a-Glance.

Figure 3 shows the average temperature across Missouri for 2017. Across the state, it was the 8th warmest year on record, with an average temperature of 57.1°F. In Missouri, the warming trend from 1930-1950 was more moderate than it was nationally, and the trend has been for a 0.1°F increase in temperature each decade. Since 1970, however, the increase has accelerated to 0.4°F per decade.




Figure 4. Data source: NOAA, Climate-at-a-Glance.

Because conditions in the Northern Rockies and Plains affect how much water flows into the Missouri River, which provides more of Missouri’s water supply than any other source, I have also tracked climate statistics for that region. Figure 4 shows the data. Last year was the 11th warmest in the record at 44.9°F. This region has been warming at a rate of 0.2°F per decade over the whole period, but since 1970, the rate has accelerated to 0.5°F per decade.




Figure 5. Data source: NOAA, Climate-at-a-Glance.

Because I have been concerned about the water supply in California, I also track the climate statistics for that state. Figure 5 shows the data. Last year was the third warmest year in the record, with an average temperature of 60.3°F. California has been warming at a rate of 0.2°F each decade. Since 1970 the rate of increase has accelerated to 0.5°F per decade.

In all 4 locations the average yearly temperature seems to have increased significantly for several decades, then paused during mid-Century, and then resumed climbing, but at an accelerated rate. There seems to be little doubt that across the country it is warmer than it was. In Missouri, the average yearly temperature has been increasing, but at a rate that is somewhat less than in the other locations I looked at.


NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance: U.S. Time Series, published January 2018, retrieved on January 15, 2018 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag.

Did Missouri Have Record Cold?

We’ve had some cold weather in Missouri recently. St. Louis hit -6°F on New Years Day, while Kansas City hit -11°F. But these are not records. The record low on New Years day is -10°F in St. Louis, and -13°F in Kansas City.

Kansas City’s all-time record low is -23°F, which occurred in December 1989.

Figure 1. Data source: National Weather Service, St. Louis Forecast Offices, Personal communication from Spencer Mell.

Figure 1 shows a chart for each winter (December, January, and February). Blue columns are the number of days with a low temperature at or below 0°F in St. Louis, and they run from 1874 to 2016. Red columns are for Kansas City, and they run from 1888 to 2016. The dashed blue line represents the trend over time for St. Louis, the dashed red line for Kansas City. You can see that the number of days varies widely from year-to-year. Many years have 1 day, or even none. In St. Louis the maximum number of days was 18, and it occurred in the winter that began in December 1935. In Kansas City, the maximum number of days was 19, and it occurred twice: in 1935 and 1978.

The trend lines show that in Kansas City, the number of days has not been changing over time. In St. Louis, however, the number of days has decreased over time.

(Click on figure for larger view.)

Figure 2. Data source: National Weather Service, St. Louis Forecast Offices, Personal communication from Spencer Mell.

One can count the number of winters that had 0 days below 0°F, the number of winters that had 1 day, the number of winters that had 2 days, etc. You can then construct a frequency chart of how many years had each number of days. Figure 2 shows such a frequency chart for St. Louis and Kansas City. There have been 54 winters in St. Louis when there were no days with lows at or below 0°F, there have been 28 such winters in Kansas City, and no other number is represented in more years than that.

The number of extremely cold days varies widely from year-to-year, but in St. Louis the average number is 3, and in Kansas City it is 4. St. Louis has experienced 2 days below 0°F this winter, and Kansas City has experienced 4 (both as of 1/16). For comparison, St. Louis has had more than 2 days below 0°F some 51 times since 1874. Kansas City has had more than 4 days below 0°F some 31 times since 1888.

The severe cold began this year on the morning of New Years Day. What about last year? Was it a hot one, or not so hot? The next post will review average temperatures for all of 2017.


National Weather Service, Kansas City Forecast Office. 2018. WFO Monthly/Daily Climate Data. Data viewed online 1/15/2018 at http://w2.weather.gov/climate/getclimate.php?date=&wfo=eax&sid=MCI&pil=CF6&recent=yes&specdate=2017-12-31+11%3A11%3A11.

National Weather Service, St. Louis Forecast Office. 2018. Ranked Occurrences of Temperature <= 32 and 0 Degrees (1893-Present). Downloaded 1/15/2018 from http://www.weather.gove/lsx/cli_archive. (Actually contains data back to 1874).

Personal communication from Spencer Mell, Climate Focal Point, National Weather Service, Kansas City Forecast Office.

Record Damage from Disasters in 2017

2017 was a record year for disasters, and in contrast to recent years, the disasters were focused on the United States.

Worldwide losses from disasters summed to$330 billion in 2017, of which only $135 billion was insured, according to a report from Munich Re, an international reinsurance company. Only one other year has seen greater losses: 2011, when the Tohoku earthquake in Japan led to the devastating tsunami and the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor. The 2017 total was almost double the average loss over the previous 10 years, even adjusting for inflation ($170 billion). (Except as noted below, data from Munich Re 2017. This is a press release from an insurance company. I generally regard peer-reviewed scientific studies, and government report to be more reliable sources. However, it will be some time before those sources report on this data. So think of these numbers as preliminary data that may undergo some revision.)

The total number of disasters numbered 710, an increase from the 10-year average of 605. In 2017, approximately 10,000 people lost their lives to disasters, which is considerably lower than the 10-year average of 60,000.

The United States accounted for 50% of the losses, compared to the long-term average of 32%, and taking a wider view, North America accounted for 83% of them. The major disasters striking the USA and North America were weather related in 2017 (in contrast to the Tohoku earthquake, which was not). Think back through the year, and quite a list comes to mind:

  • Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 26, and devastated the region. With losses summing to approximately $85 billion, it was the costliest disaster of 2017.
  • On September 5, Hurricane Irma, the strongest hurricane ever in the open Atlantic, began blowing a swath of destruction through the Caribbean before crossing the Florida Keys, then traveling south-to-north up the Florida Peninsula. Insured losses were $32 billion, uninsured losses are not yet known.
  • Hurricane Maria, the second Category 5 hurricane to clobber the Caribbean in 2 weeks, slammed into Dominica on September 18, before totally devastating Puerto Rico. Total losses have not yet been calculated, but as of this writing, almost 3 months later, more than 1/4 of the island of Puerto Rico remains without electricity. (StatusPR 1/8/2018)
  • Terrible wildfires swept across North America in 2017. The National Interagency Fire Center has not yet posted summary statistics for the year. However, InciWeb indicates that the largest were two fires in Oklahoma: the Northwest Oklahoma Complex, at 779,292 acres, and the Starbuck Fire, at 623,000 acres. Eleven other fires consumed over 100,000 acres. Of course, the ones that grabbed the headlines were in California. In October, 250 wildfires ignited across Northern California, burning over 245,000 acres and causing more than $9.4 billion in damage; 44 people were killed and 8,900 structures were destroyed. In December, a new round of fires broke out north of Los Angeles and East of Santa Barbara. More than 230,000 people were forced to evacuate, over 1,300 structures were destroyed, and 307,900 acres were consumed. (Inciweb, Wikipedia, 2018).
  • During the Spring, a series of severe thunderstorms with accompanying tornadoes and hail, caused insured losses of over $1 billion. These included record floods across Southern Missouri, as 8-12 inches of rain fell over 48 hours in some areas. (National Weather Service 2017)
  • In Asia, some 2,700 people lost their lives due to flooding resulting from an extremely severe monsoon season. In some districts, 3/4 of the territory was under water.

The fires that struck California were unprecedented, and yet, the acres burned by the fires in Oklahoma were more than 5 times larger. The devastation wrought by the hurricanes was beyond imagination – whole islands were virtually destroyed.

As reported many times in this blog, weather conditions play a role in hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding. While my reviews have indicated that damage from weather-related disasters is highly variable from year-to-year, there has also been a clear trend toward more damage. While humans play a role by living in harms way, climate change does, too.

The report from Munich Re includes the following statement: “A key point is that some of the catastrophic events…are giving us a foretaste of what is to come. Because even though individual events cannot be directly traced to climate change, our experts expect such extreme weather to occur more often in the future.” (p.2)

More detailed information on disasters and severe weather events in Missouri and the USA will become available later in the year. The next post will look at 2017 summary weather patterns in Missouri and across the USA.


InciWeb, Incident Information System. This is the portal for an interagency information management system. Data was viewed online 1/8/2018 at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov.

Munich Re. 2018. Natural Catastrophe Review: Series of Hurricanes Makes 2017 Year of Highest Insured Losses Ever. Press release downloaded 1/5/2018 from https://www.munichre.com/en/media-relations/publications/press-releases/2018/2018-01-04-press-release/index.html.

National Weather Service. 2017. Historic Flooding Event — 28-30 April 2017. Viewed online 1/8/2018 at https://www.weather.gov/sgf/28-30AprilHistoricFloodingEvent.

StatusPR. Website viewed online 1/8/2018 at http://status.pr.

Wikipedia. 2018. 2017 California Fires. Downloaded 1/8/2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_California_wildfires.

Worldwide Carbon Dioxide Emissions Holding Constant

A recent article in the New York Times by Eduardo Porter (here) points out that if one considers only carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) from the combustion of fuels, then worldwide emissions have been flat for 3 years in a row.

Figure 1. Source: International Energy Agency, 2017b.

The finding comes from a news release issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Figure 1 shows the data. Between 1980 and 2014, global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion grew from 17.7 billion metric tons to 32.3 billion metric tons. However, in 2015 they stayed at 32.3 billion metric tons, and in 2016 emissions were 32.1 billion metric tons. (IEA 2017a, 2017b)

Since 2005, CO2 emissions from fuel combustion have declined in the OECD from 12.8 billion metric tons to 11.7 billion metric tons, a decline of 8.6%. In the United States, emissions declined from 6.71 billion metric tons to 5.00 metric tons (a decline of 25%). That’s good work, however it needs to be put in context. Compared to 1990, OECD emissions in 2016 were 6.4% higher, and USA emissions were 4.1% higher. (IEA 2017a)

I don’t have breakouts by country for 2016, but in 2015 the world’s largest emitter of CO2 from fuel combustion was the People’s Republic of China (mainland China), at 7.28 billion metric tons. Even China is reducing its emissions, however, by 1% in both 2015 and 2016. (IEA 2017a)

Emissions from fuel combustion may be the best estimate of worldwide emissions available. They constitute the largest percentage of emissions, and it is virtually impossible to inventory how much methane is being released by every bog or permafrost around the world, or how much nitrogen oxide from farm chemicals, etc.

Figure 2. Source: Earth Systems Research Laboratory, 2017.

In August I posted that the American Meteorological Society reported that in 2015 the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere averaged above 400 ppm for the first time ever. It was my opinion that this was terrible news: 400 ppm was something akin to a threshold we needed not to cross in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. We crossed it decades before anybody thought we would. Further, the concentration of greenhouse gases was continuing to increase, and the rate of increase seemed, if anything, to be growing over time. Figure 2 repeats the chart showing the trend over time.

How can one reconcile that post with the new findings? Imagine you are on the Titanic, and an hour ago the ship struck an iceberg. The ship’s crew happily reports that the amount of water getting into the ship is no longer increasing minute-by-minute. Well, that’s nice to hear, but water is still pouring into the ship, and unless you can stop the water getting in, the ship will still sink. The CO2 situation is similar, but in reverse. The rate at which the world is putting CO2 into the atmosphere may not be going up, but we are still putting billions of tons of it into the atmosphere every year. It is more than enough to cause climate change. We don’t need emissions to flatten, we need them to decrease to a fraction of what they are today.

So, it is good news that worldwide emissions have not grown over the last 3 years. Perhaps it even tends to validate the efforts we’ve been making: maybe moving away from fossil fuels, especially coal, has helped stabilize emissions. But we have a long way to go before we stop this vessel of ours from sinking.

UPDATE: The Global Carbon Project released a report published 11/13/2017 (after this post was written) that projects 2017 carbon emissions from combustion of fuels will increase 2% from 2016. If their estimates prove correct, then the period of flat emissions will be over, and emissions will have resumed their upward climb. (Global Carbon Project, 2017)


Earth System Research Laboratory. 2017. Full Mauna Loa CO2 Record. Downloaded 2017-06-15 from https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends.

Global Carbon Project. 2017. Global Carbon Budget: Summary Highlights. Viewed online 11/15/2017 at http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/17/highlights.htm.

International Energy Agency. 2017a. CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion: Highlights. Downloaded 11/09/2017 from https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/CO2EmissionsfromFuelCombustionHighlights2017.pdf

International Energy Agency. 2017b. IEA Finds CO2 Emissions Flat for Third Straight Year Even as Global Economy Grew in 2016. Downloaded 2017-11-09 from https://www.iea.org/newsroom/news/2017/march/iea-finds-co2-emissions-flat-for-third-straight-year-even-as-global-economy-grew.html.

California Ablaze: Nature’s Revenge?

Fires torch hundreds of thousands of acres in California.

Just a few short weeks ago I discussed the terrible hurricanes that affected Houston, the Caribbean Islands, and Florida this year. Now, the headlines are full of the wildfires that have been raging in California.

By late September, it had already been a heavy forest fire season in the western United States. Then, over the weekend of October 7-8, wildfires broke out in the area around the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Fanned by hot, dry winds, they spread unbelievably quickly, burning 155,509 of acres (as of 10/17/2017), including prime wine producing vineyards, and thousands of homes (CALFIRE 2017b). Dozens were killed. Figure 1 shows the Coffee Park area of Santa Rosa in 2015. Figure 2 shows it after the fire. The gray areas are homes that have been burned – I mean burned to the ground, reduced to ashes. (City of Santa Rosa 2017)

Figure 1: Coffee Park Neighborhood, Santa Rosa CA, in 2015. Source: City of Santa Rosa.

Figure 2. Coffee Park Neighborhood, Santa Rosa CA, after the fire. Source: City of Santa Rosa.












All totaled, as of 10/15/2017 CALFIRE lists 7,980 fires in California that have burned 1,046,995 acres (1,636 sq. mi.) (CALFIRE 2017b). Figure 3 shows a map of the fires. Maps such as this one tend not to be comprehensive, as they map the fires to which the specific agency has responded. (CALFIRE 2017a) Across the United States, as of 10/17/2017 there have been 51,435 wildfires that have burned 8,769,877 acres. That puts 2017 among the top 10 fire years ever, and compares to an average of 6,016,599 acres from 2006-2016. Figure 4 shows the data. Data collection methods changed after 1984, which is why I have used different colors for before and after that year. (National Interagency Fire Center)

Figure 3. Fires Responded to by CALFIRE in 2017. Source: CALFIRE, 2017.

Figure 4. Data source: National Interagency Fire Center, 2017.













At a recent workshop of wildland fire experts, the consensus was that the United States was experiencing wildland fires that were behaving in aggressive, destructive ways that had never been experienced before. (National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017) What is going on?

In a series of posts last year, I explored the role that wildfire plays in western forests and showed that, though the number of fires did not seem to be trending higher, the number of acres burned per fire did. The result was that more acres per year were burning. There seemed to be 3 causes. One was that, while for decades fire was regarded as an unmitigated evil and suppressed as vigorously as possible, it was now regarded as a necessary part of forest ecology, and was allowed to burn without suppression efforts in some cases. A second reason was that decades of suppression had left western forests littered with dead and downed wood, perfect conditions for small fires to grow into huge raging crown fires that destroyed tens of thousands of acres. And a third reason was that climate change had raised summer temperatures, causing forests to dry out earlier in the season, turning small fires that would extinguish on their own into large, destructive fires.

Early fall is the driest time of year in the regions around the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Typically, it has rained very little or not at all since March or April; the grasslands are brown and sere, the forests dry and brittle. Then, in October, the wind starts to blow: the Diablo Winds in Northern California, and the Santa Ana Winds in Southern California. Fueled by high pressure over the central United States and lower pressure over the coast, the winds rush over the Sierra Madre Mountains, down the passes and valleys, and through the lowlands. It happens every year. This year, when the fires started near the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, gusts were blowing at 79 m.p.h. Recent research suggests that the winds may be getting hotter and drier as a result of climate change. (Fountain, 2017)

Wildfire needs three things to grow, and it got all of them: warm temperatures, lots of dry fuel, and high winds that were hot and dry. The fires blew up into raging infernos. Blowing sparks along at 70+ m.p.h., the wind and the fire outraced the firefighters. In a span of only a few hours, tens of thousands of acres were reduced to ashes, whole neighborhoods were destroyed, and dozens were killed.

Hurricanes in the Atlantic, fires across the West, deluges and record heat in Australia, terrible floods in Asia, drought and desertification in some parts of Africa and floods in other parts: is Mother Nature mad at us? Is she exacting revenge for the way we have mistreated Her all these years? To borrow a thought from Abraham Lincoln: if we shall suppose that environmental destruction is an offense against Nature, and that humankind has caused that offense, and that suffering inevitably comes to those who commit such offenses, and if Nature now gives to us these terrible disasters as due to those who have caused the offenses, then shall we see in them anything but a judgment and a justice that is altogether true and righteous? “Woe unto the world because of offenses.” (Lincoln, 1865)


CALFIRE. 2017a. Incident Information: Number of Fires and Acres. Viewed online 10/17/2017 at http://cdfdata.fire.ca.gov/incidents/incidents_stats?year=2017.

Cal Fire. 2017b. Statewide Fire Maps. Downloaded 2017-10-17 from http://www.fire.ca.gov/current_incidents.

City of Santa Rosa. 2017. Emergency Information Homepage: Fire Aerial Photo Comparison. Downloaded 2017-10-17 from https://www.srcity.org/2620/Emergency-Information.

Fountain, Henry. 2017. “California Winds are Fueling Fires. It May Be Getting Worse. New York Times, 10/11/2017. Viewed online 10/17/2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/climate/caifornia-fires-wind.html?action=click&contentCollection=climate&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront.

Lincoln, Abraham. 1865. Second Inaugural Address. Viewed online 10/17/2017 at http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Manage- ment: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi. org/10.17226/24792. Downloaded 8/25/2017 from http://nap.edu/24792.
National Interagency Fire Center. Year-to-Date Statistics. Viewed online 10/17/2017 at https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm.

Damaging Weather Events in Missouri

Figure 1. Data source: Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services.

Damage from sever weather in Missouri shows a different pattern than does damage nationwide. As Figure 1 shows, the cost of damage from hazardous weather events in Missouri spiked in 2007, then really spiked in 2011. Since then, it has returned to a comparatively low level. The bulk of the damage in 2011 was from 2 tornado outbreaks. One hit the St. Louis area, damaging Lamber Field. The second devastated Joplin, killing 158, injuring 1,150, and causing damage estimated at $2.8 billion. The damages in 2007 came primarily from two winter storms, one early in the year, one late. In both cases, hundreds of thousands were without power, and traffic accidents spiked.

In 2015 Missouri saw an increase in weather-related damage, primarily due to the flooding that struck between Christmas and New Years that year. There was similar flooding this year in April, so 2017 will likely see a similar increase.

Figure 2. Data source: Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services.

Figure 2 shows deaths and injuries in Missouri from hazardous weather. Deaths are in blue and should be read on the left vertical axis. Injuries are in red and should be read on the right vertical axis. The large number of injuries and deaths in 2011 were primarily from the Joplin tornado. In 2006 and 2007, injuries spiked, but fatalities did not. The injuries mostly represented non-fatal auto accidents from winter ice storms. The fatalities in 1999 resulted from a tornado outbreak.

The Missouri data covers fewer years than the national data discussed in my previous post. It also covers all hazardous weather, in contrast to the national data, which covered billion dollar weather disasters.

While the national data shows a clear trend towards more big weather disasters, Missouri’s data does not. The Missouri data seems to reflect the kind of disaster that occurred and where it occurred. Tornadoes, if they hit developed areas, cause injuries, deaths, and lots of damage. Floods cause fewer injuries and deaths; damage can be significant, but it is limited to the floodplain of the river that flooded. Ice storms affect widespread areas; damages come mostly through loss of the electrical grid and car crashes, which cause many injuries, but fewer deaths.


Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services, National Weather Service. 2016. Natural Hazard Statistics. Data downloaded 9/11/2017 from http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hazstats.shtml#.

InflationData.com. 2016. Historical Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) Data. Data downloaded 2/10/16 from http://inflationdata.com/Inflation/Consumer_Price_Index/HistoricalCPI.aspx?reloaded=true.

Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. Declared Disasters in Missouri. Viewed online 9/12/2017 at https://sema.dps.mo.gov/maps_and_disasters/disasters.

Descriptions of specific weather events, if they are large and significant, can be found on the websites of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, and local weather forecast offices. However, in my experience, the best descriptions are often on Wikipedia.

Severe Storms on the Increase

The number of severe storms is increasing, and so is their intensity.

Figure 1. Source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

In the previous post I noted that Hurricane Harvey was one in a series of storms that have devastated Houston, and indeed, the country as a whole. I asked what is going on, and whether it has always been this way.

The National Centers for Environmental Information tracks weather disasters that cause over $1 billion in damages. Figure 1 shows how many there have been each year going back to 1980. The number varies from year-to-year, but over time there has been a significant increase – there weren’t any in 1987, but in 2011 there were 16. Through July 7, 2017, roughly half the year, there have been 9.

(Click on chart for larger view.)

In the chart, the colors represent different types of weather disasters. Storms are divided into 3 categories: winter storms, which involve ice and snow, tropical cyclones (like Hurricane Harvey or Tropical Storm Irene), and severe storms. This last category includes thunderstorms and tornadoes, as well as severe rain events like the ones that caused flooding in Missouri in December 2015 and April 2017. You can see that the increased number of billion-dollar disasters has come from an increase in the number of severe storms. It has not come from tropical storms or winter storms.

Figure 2. Data source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

Figure 2 shows the damage cost from billion-dollar weather disasters each year. The damage cost is adjusted for inflation. The chart shows that there are many years when the total cost is below $25 billion. However, there are also years where the amount of damage spikes. The year with the largest damage was 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and a wide swath of the Gulf Coast, and damage topped $213 billion. That’s quite a chunk of change. The second highest cost occurred in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy came ashore in New York. This year, 2017, only includes damage up to July 7, so it doesn’t include Hurricane Harvey or Irma. I have seen news stories that the cost of damage from Hurricane Harvey may reach $150 billion, and Irma will add billions more. By the time the year is done, the damage cost is likely to be the highest in history.


Figure 3. Data source: NOAA, National Centers for Environmental Information.

Figure 3 shows the number of billion dollar weather disasters by type (through 7/7/2017). Since 1980, there have been a total of 212. Severe storms have accounted for 42% of the events.








Figure 4. Data source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

Figure 4 shows the total costs of billion dollar weather disasters by type (through 7/7/2017). Since 1980 costs have totaled $1.24 trillion dollars, and tropical cyclones have accounted for about 47% of the total cost. Though they constitute the largest number of events, severe storms account for only 16% of the cost of damages. That is because such storms, while severe, affect relatively small areas. Tropical storms and droughts, on the other hand, affect much larger areas.





Figure 5. Miami Beach in 1925. Source: Miami Design Preservation League.

All of the highest cost years have occurred since 2004. The data is inflation-adjusted, so that should not be the reason. One possible reason not related to the weather is that there are more people living in harms way – the population living along the coast has grown, and sprawl has caused more of the landscape to be covered with development, increasing the likelihood that a severe storm will hit something and damage it. For instance, in 1920 the population of Miami-Dade County (the location of the City of Miami) was 42,753 (that’s right, less than 50,000). But in 2010 it was 2,507,362. In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead, a small community southwest of Miami, the area between Miami and Homestead was mostly open agricultural fields. Today, just 15 years later, it has filled-in, and is one continuous urban area. This story has been repeated all along the coasts of America, and in many inland areas as well. (See here.)





Figure 6. Intensity of Tropical Storms. Source: Kossin et al, 2013.

But I think that’s only part of the story. The number of tropical storms striking the U.S. may not have increased, but their intensity has. Figure 6 shows the intensity of tropical storms in different regions of the world over time. LMI stands for the lifetime maximum intensity of the wind in a storm, in meters per second. The lines represent quantiles. The 0.9 line (pinkish-purple) means that 90% of all storms that year were less intense than that value. The 0.8 line (light blue) means that 80% of all storms were less intense than that value, and so on. The authors dropped trend lines on the chart for each quantile. In the North Atlantic, storms have increased in intensity a lot. Those are the storms that strike the East Coast and Gulf Coast of the United States.


Figure 7. Source: GlobalChange.gov.

Other kinds of heavy precipitation events are also on the rise, as I reported here. Figure 7 repeats a chart from that post showing the trend over time.

Scientists project that climate change will cause an increase in storm intensity and in heavy rain events. It seems that this is not a prediction for the future, it is already happening. One cannot say that any individual storm is caused by climate change, but storms like Hurricane Harvey, Tropical Storm Irene, and the April storm in Missouri are already “more common,” and are likely to be even more “more common” in the future.


GlobalChange.gov. Broadcase_Trends-in-heavy-precip_V2. National Climate Assessment 2014. Downloads, Graphics (Broadcast). Downloaded 11/13/2016 from http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/downloads.

Kossin, James, Timothy Olander, and Kenneth Knapp. 2013. Trend Analysis with a New Global Record of Tropical Cyclone Intensity. Journal of Climate, 26, 9960-9976.

Miami Design Preservation League. Collins Ave. at 63rd Street in 1925.Downloaded 9/8/2017 from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/189714203027788727.

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2017). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions.

Wikipedia. Miami-Dade County, Florida. Viewed online 9/8/2017 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miami-Dade_County,_Florida#2010_U.S._Census.