Water, Water Everywhere

"Love everyone, and tell the truth." Neem Karoli Baba

A record-breaking storm has flooded Texas. Hurricane Harvey increased from category 1 to category 4 hours before coming ashore on August 25th. The worst wind devastation was on the coast because Harvey quickly lost energy and was downgraded to a tropical storm. Forward movement stalled for days, and continued to draw water from the Gulf, producing massive rainfall over the area, eventually flooding a quarter of the state.

By August 31, peak rainfall over 50 inches was recorded in several locations and more than $150B in property damage has been estimated. With widespread contamination from sewage and industrial sites, recovery will take years. This is the third 500-year flood to hit Houston in the last three years, suggesting that flood prediction needs updating.

The atmosphere distributes the heat from the tropics to higher latitudes with currents that we experience as weather. These patterns follow the basic rules of thermodynamics, the same physics used for air conditioning and refrigeration. The planet is warming, and weather patterns are changing. Harvey was affected in three ways.

First, hurricanes are heat engines and gain energy, speed, and size over warmer water. In August, the water in the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico was 7° warmer than normal, fueling Harvey's acceleration from category 1 to category 4.

Second, the difference in temperature between the Arctic and the tropics helps define the path of the jet stream. The Artic is heating faster than the rest of the planet, so the difference is less and the jet stream wanders more, creating large loops reaching far to the south. These loops move slowly, and even stall. As Harvey tried to move inland, it was blocked on the north by a high pressure loop, and stalled over Houston.

Third, warmer water evaporates faster, and warmer air can carry more water vapor. The circulation of the stalled storm dumped massive amounts of rain into the Houston area for days.

We know the Texas floods are real news. President Trump flew in to praise his recovery efforts as the disaster was unfolding. We can also trust that flooding reported elsewhere is real. The last half of August was a busy two weeks.

August 31, Karachi, Pakistan downtown flooded.
August 30, Mumbai, India had the heaviest rains in 15 years, displacing over 14 million people. The same day Yemen had the worst flooding in 20 years, making the war created cholera epidemic spread even further.
August 29, Windsor, Canada had 8 inches of rain in 24 hours.
August 25, Bangladesh suffered torrential rainfall and flooding from previous deluges upstream, affecting 7.1 million people.
August 1-25, seven provinces in China had the worst rainfall in 60 year, with 10 inches falling in 24 hours in some places, affecting 9.6 million people.
August 24, Macau, China had the most powerful rain in 50 years, affecting over 2 million people.
August 23, Hong Kong was hit with a category 10 typhoon, producing massive flooding on the same day Kansas City, Kansas declared a flash flood emergency after 9 inches of rain fell, and Northern Ireland reported 60 incidents of flash flooding.
August 21, Nepal had the heaviest rain in 60 years, affecting 1.7 million people, and Niger, Africa had flooding that affected 157,000, and extended the risk of epidemics.
August 19, Freetown Sierra Leone, Africa had torrential rains, producing massive flooding and deadly mudslides.

Most of us never hear news of these events, and no one seems to be examining global flooding in an effort to understand changing weather all over the planet. Climate change is happening now. When a community floods, it takes time, resources, and money to return to life as it was before the event. Places like Houston, which has suffered major flooding for three years now, is fundamentally changed. The poorest folks lose the most, and have the least capacity to rebound. We are all poorer as a result.

President Trump claims climate change is a Chinese hoax and has stacked his government with similar minded folks. They have canceled flood zone mapping and the National Flood Insurance Program is $25 billion in debt after paying for Sandy. Trump has yet to appoint a FEMA director. The governor of Texas and both senators are climate deniers, even as they request massive, immediate relief funds from the federal government. Those senators voted against recovery funds after Hurricane Sandy.

The longer we wait to deal with root causes, the worse the problems we leave our grandchildren, assuming it isn't already too late. How many "unprecedented" weather disasters have to happen before we wake up?