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By Ken Haapala, President, The Science and Environmental Policy Project
Houston Flooding – Resilience Needed: America’s great fortune of no major hurricanes (category 3 or above) making landfall ended after almost 12 years. As stated in last week’s TWTW, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast, between Port Aransas and Port O’Connor (east of Corpus Christi) on Friday night. It was a category 4 hurricane with wind speeds of 130-156 mph (113-136 kt; 209-251 km/h). National Weather Service had predicted a storm surge up to 9 to 13 feet (2.7 to 4 meters) and heavy rainfall of 15 to 30 inches (38 to 76 cm) with up to 40 inches (102 cm) in some locations. Later, it degraded to a tropical storm.
What the National Weather Service did not predict at that time was that the storm would stall over the Houston area, go back to the Gulf of Mexico, and return. By staying in the Houston area, with moisture being replenished from the Gulf, Harvey dropped a total of about 50 inches (125 cm) of rain on the fifth most populated metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in the country, and, probably, the most industrialized one. (According to 2016 statistics from the Census Bureau, New York MSA had a population of 20.1 million; Los Angeles MSA a population of 13.3 million; Chicago MSA a population of 9.5 million; Dallas MSA a population of 7.2 million; and Houston MSA a population of 6.8 million.) The Houston metropolitan area is 10,062 square miles (26,000 sq. km.) and is the fastest growing in population of MSAs the US.
As the rainfall statistics highlighted by Paul Homewood demonstrate, Harvey was not the most intense rain storm recorded in the world, or the US; but, it was significant for the Houston area. Fortunately, the people living in the area demonstrated a great resilience in helping each other to handle the flooding. With one noticeable glitch, the Federal, State, and local officials worked well together, demonstrating that the officials responsible learned from Katrina. The primary responsibility for coordination of relief efforts is local, then state, then federal. Solid coordination and communications are needed among the many individuals, private organizations, and government entities that become involved.
The glitch came early, when the mayor of Houston recommended that people stay in their homes, but the governor recommended evacuation. As the storm continued, a number of communities had to be evacuated because the gateways of flood control dams had to be opened to prevent bursting of the dams. The last-minute evacuation caused hardships for the residents.
As all too common in today’s weather disasters, news media tend to broadcast the claims of climate alarmists. The “go-to” expert for the UK Guardian was Mr. Michael Mann. As expected, he made vague pronouncements of global warming causing the problems. Similar pronouncements were carried by other news groups. The implied assumption is that such weather events would be as severe, if we limited carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Roy Spencer was trained as a meteorologist under Verner Suomi, whom many consider the father of satellite meteorology. As typical for him, Spencer countered these vague generalizations with facts and data. Spencer pointed out that there have been many floods of Houston, dating to the mid-1800s. The worst previous one was in December 1935, when the Buffalo Bayou in downtown topped at 54.4 feet (16.6 meters), long before the fear of CO2-caused global warming. (Buffalo Bayou is a slow-moving river flowing through downtown Houston.) Several years ago, when this observer toured Buffalo Bayou on boat, the guide pointed out high water marks on buildings some 50 feet above the deck of the boat. According to state statistics, the 1930 population of Houston was 292,000 and the 1940 population was 385,000, roughly 5% of the population today.
According to the soil survey of Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston) by the USDA Soil Conservations Service, mostly, the soils in the Houston area are nearly level, clayey and loamy prairie soils, with clayey underlying layers. They drain poorly with low to moderate permeability and have a high shrink-swell potential. They are not ideal for building a city and flood easily, but paving them does not greatly decrease their ability to absorb water.
Following the flood of 1935, and the prior one of 1929, the US Corps of Engineers built Addicks and Barker dams under US Rivers and Harbors Act of 1938, creating reservoirs. The purpose was to control flooding of the Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries. It was the fear that the rains from Harvey would overwhelm the dams that prompted the Corps to release of water from these reservoirs. The issue of storm water management in this relatively flat basin with impervious soils was addressed, addressed, but not adequately for the amount of rain over the short time period in which it occurred with Harvey. Despite the releases from the Addicks dam, the reservoir overflowed for the first time and compounded the flooding.
Spencer addresses the question: Are Texas major hurricanes dependent on an unusually warm Gulf? Spencer shows a plot of Texas major hurricane landfalls and western Gulf of Mexico sea surface temperatures from 1870 to today. No discernable trend. He concludes:
“The Gulf of Mexico is warm enough every summer to produce a major hurricane. But you also usually need a pre-existing cyclonic circulation or wave, which almost always can be traced back to the coast of Africa. Also, the reasons why some systems intensify and others don’t are not well understood.”
Obviously, there is no discernable warming trend for the flood of December 1935. Spencer addresses several other issues such as was the rainfall total unprecedented, it was not; was the intensity unprecedented, no; did global warming make it worse, no. Spencer shows a plot of surface temperature anomalies around North America for August 2017 (through Aug. 28) and asks anyone to show him what pattern is due to global warming. Mr. Mann implied that global warming caused a shift in the jet stream. Spencer concludes:
“There is coastal lake sediment evidence of catastrophic hurricanes which struck the Florida panhandle over 1,000 years ago, events which became less frequent in the most recent 1,000 years.
“Weather disasters happen, with or without the help of humans.”
See links under Challenging the Orthodoxy, Changing Weather, Changing Weather – We Know, Changing Weather – We Do Not Know, and https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_MANUSCRIPTS/texas/harrisTX1976/harris.pdf
Quote of the Week. “In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.”— Mark Twain
Similar Conclusions: Writing in his Weather and Climate Blog, Cliff Mass independently reaches conclusions similar to those of Spencer. Previously, Mass has written that he believes that CO2 emissions are causing global warming. On the subject of Hurricane Harvey being caused by man, namely CO2 emissions, or significantly intensified by emissions, Mass writes:
“Most of the stories [of CO2 cause] were not based on data or any kind of quantitative analysis, but a hand-waving argument that a warming earth will put more water vapor into the atmosphere and thus precipitation will increase. A few suggesting that a warming atmosphere will cause hurricanes to move more slowly.
“This blog will provide a careful analysis of the possible impacts of global warming on Hurricane Harvey. And the results are clear: human-induced global warming played an inconsequential role in this disaster.”
To paraphrase Alan Carlin’s essay, CO2 management will not provide stormwater management. See links under Challenging the Orthodoxy and Changing Weather – We Do Not Know
Long Range Forecasts: Writing in Climate Etc. Judith Curry analyses the forecasts of Hurricane Harvey made by models the National Hurricane Center (NHC), NOAA, and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). Such analyses are important and hopefully will lead to refinements in the various models resulting in accurate forecasts 10 to 15 days in advance.
Curry explains that her company, Climate Forecast Applications Network (CFAN), calibrated the ECMWF and NOAA-GEFS forecasts to evaluate long-range (beyond 5 days) capabilities, given the enormous uncertainties involved. To her, “the challenge is forecast interpretation and uncertainty assessment.” This is complicated by the various scales of the models from mesoscale (20 km or more) to global. See link under Changing Weather.
More on the Way? In his Saturday Summary, Joe Bastardi of WeatherBELL LLC presented the possibility that Hurricane Irma may brush the Atlantic Coast. This is a category 3 hurricane east of the Caribbean, and about mid-way between Africa and Florida. The forecast is it will intensify to a category 5 and it may hit the Carolina coast as a category 4. Many model forecasts have it hitting the US southeast coast. See link under Changing Weather.
[This report shows low ability to forecast weather – in this case the track and intensity of a major hurricane just a week later. And yet, the nitwits who spread Climate Alarmism want people to believe that they can forecast climate 25, 50, or 100 years into the future. -Bob]
Multi-Layered Resilience: One of the distractions that occurs when a hurricane hits is people insisting that they predicted it, if only others had listened. For example, when Katrina hit east of New Orleans in 2005, the Federal government was blamed. Certainly, the coordination between Federal and local authorities was poor. But, after Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, following Audrey in 1957, the Corps of Engineers planned a barrier-gate system along I-10, similar to the movable barrier system used by the Dutch and the English. The US District Court for Eastern Louisiana stopped it under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Had the system been built, it should have stopped the storm surge from Katrina entering New Orleans through Lake Pontchartrain, killing many people and causing most of the damage in New Orleans. The storm surge overwhelmed the levy system, which was shoddily constructed, with significant funds diverted for political purposes. Fittingly, the mayor, who did not order the evacuation of New Orleans, was later convicted for his role in diversion of funds.
However, this barrier-gate system would not have stopped the recent flooding of lower parts of New Orleans because the flooding was a result of heavy rain and an electrical failure caused by fire. The pumps used to expel water from lower parts of New Orleans were built about the 1920s and use an electrical frequency of about 28 hertz, not 60 hertz common to the electrical grid. For resilience, a complete upgrade of defenses is needed.
Following Hurricane Ike, a large category 2 storm (not category 3) which made landfall near Galveston on September 13, 2008 and had a major storm surge of 20 feet (6.1 m) some researchers modeled a system to protect the Houston – Galveston Area from a similar hurricane hitting about 30 miles to the southeast, more directly impacting the Houston ship channel. The system included: 1) a barrier gate structure for the Houston ship channel similar to Rotterdam; 2) elevate Highway146 to protect those who live west of Houston; and 3) protection of historic and industrial areas of Galveston.
At this time, it appears that a storm surge was not a major cause of damage in the Houston area, though it may have been to Galveston. The Houston ship channel, which was closed for eight months after the 1935 storm, was open on a limited basis one week after Harvey hit – daytime and for ships with a draft of less than 33 feet (10 meters). Thus, the modeled system did not address the demands of Harvey, though it may be desirable for future storms. This example illustrates that a complete system of resilience for hurricanes must be multi-layered, addressing multiple threats. See links under Changing Weather – We Do Not Know.
Social Benefits of Carbon Dioxide: Among the foolish arguments advanced by those who claim that damage is being done by CO2, including the authors of the US National Assessment, are the calculations involved in the Social Cost of Carbon. Craig Idso brings up an important concept the National Assessment writers fail to recognize: the increases in Net Primary Production (NPP) which represents “the net carbon that is fixed (sequestered) by a given plant community or ecosystem. It is the combined product of climatic, geochemical, ecological, and human effects. In recent years, many have expressed concerns that global terrestrial NPP should be falling due to the many real (and imagined) assaults on Earth’s vegetation that have occurred over the past several decades—including wildfires, disease, pest outbreaks, and deforestation, as well as overly-hyped changes in temperature and precipitation.
“The second ‘National Assessment’ of the effects of climate change on the United States warns that rising temperatures will necessarily result in the reduced productivity of major crops, such as corn and soybeans, and that crops and livestock will be ‘increasingly challenged.’ Looking to the future, the National Assessment suggests that the situation will only get worse, unless drastic steps are taken to reduce the ongoing rise in the air’s CO2 content (e.g., scaling back on the use of fossil fuels that, when burned, produce water and CO2).
As Idso has reported almost weekly, the benefits of additional CO2 in the atmosphere on crop yields and nutritional value are enormous. As Bjørn Lomborg writes, better nutrition for infants and young children is the best investment. The world is getting part of it for free! Yet, bureaucratic calculators are calling it a cost. See links under Social Benefits of Carbon
Number of the Week: 4326 Days (almost 12 years). The last major storm to make landfall on the US was Wilma in October of 2005. The previous record lull was around 8 years in the 1860s. [H/t Joe D’Aleo]. Will those who claim that intensity of Harvey was caused by CO2 also claim that the almost 12-year lull was also caused by CO2?
1. Texas, Thou Hast Sinned
Progressives blame Houston’s success for the hurricane disaster.
Editorial, WSJ, Aug 31, 2017
SUMMARY: The editorial states:
“Who says progressives don’t believe in religion? They may not believe in Jehovah or Jesus, but they certainly believe in Old Testament-style wrath against sinners. Real Noah and the Ark stuff. Witness the emerging theme on the media left that Texas, and especially Houston, are at fault for the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
“This has happened even faster than usual, perhaps because the Katrina II scenario of emergency mismanagement didn’t pan out. The state, local and federal governments have done a competent job under terrible conditions, and stories about neighborly charity, racial goodwill, the heroism of rescuers, and Big Business donating money and goods don’t fit into any agenda. Whining over Melania’s heels also lacks political legs.
“So our friends on the left have had to look elsewhere to score ideological points, and they believe they’ve found the right target in the political economy of those greedy Texans. Specifically, Houston is a global hub of the oil and gas industry, and it has allowed “laissez-faire” development without zoning laws. This has brought the righteous wrath of Harvey down on their own heads.
“’Harvey, the Storm That Humans Helped Cause,’ said a headline in one progressive bellwether as the storm raged. An overseas columnist was less subtle if more clichéd: ‘Houston, you have a problem, and some of it of your own making’” In this telling, Houston is the Sodom and Gomorrah of fossil fuels, which cause global warming, which is producing more hurricanes.
“The problem is that this argument is fact-free. As Roger Pielke Jr. has noted, the link between global warming and recent hurricanes and extreme weather events is “unsupportable based on research and evidence.” Mr. Pielke, who is no climate-change denier, has shown with data that hurricanes hitting the U.S. have not increased in frequency or intensity since 1900, there is no notable trend up or down in global tropical cyclone landfalls since 1970, and floods have not increased in frequency or intensity in the U.S. since 1950.
“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently said that ‘it is premature to conclude that human activities—and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming—have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity.’
“No less than the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it lacks evidence to show that global warming is making storms and flooding worse. But climate scolds still blame Harvey on climate change because, well, this is what the climate models say should happen as the climate warms.
“In other words, Houstonians, you’d better go to climate confession, mend your sinful ways, and give up all of those high-paying oil-and-gas jobs. Maybe all those drillers and refiners can work for Google or Facebook .
“Then there’s the political assault on Houston’s pro-growth development policies. ‘Harvey Wasn’t Just Bad Weather. It Was Bad City Planning’ shouts a piece in Bloomberg Businessweek: ‘Sprawling Houston is a can-do city whose attitude is grow first, ask questions later. It’s the only major U.S. city without a zoning code saying what types of buildings can go where, so skyscrapers sometimes sprout next to split-levels. Voters have repeatedly opposed enacting a zoning law.’
“How dare those Texas hicks reject the political controls over building that zoning laws represent. How dare they prefer lower construction costs and affordable housing. The average rent on a one-bedroom home in Houston is 60% lower than in San Jose, Calif., in part because the city issues permits once builders satisfy a health and safety checklist. They don’t have many mandates that raise costs. Tens of thousands of people move to Houston and its swampy climate because they can get good jobs and afford to live there.
“Zoning also has little or nothing to do with flooding. Some on the left blame roads built over wetlands. But according to Joel Kotkin’s Center for Opportunity Urbanism, the main problem is Houston’s topography. Its clay soil doesn’t absorb water well and the flat city doesn’t drain well. In the 1800s when there were no highways or parking lots, parts of the city were often flooded.
“The loss of wetlands since the early 1990s has reduced Houston’s capacity to absorb water by some four billion gallons, but Harvey dropped trillions of gallons of rain. Harris County which surrounds Houston has expanded storm-water retention ponds. But no amount of flood control could have prevented damage from a once-in-500-years storm.
As noted above in the discussion of soils in the commentary section of TWTW, paving impervious, or largely impervious, soils do not greatly reduce their ability to absorb water.
New York City has plenty of zoning and building limits, yet it suffered $19 billion in damage from Hurricane Sandy that dropped only a half inch of rain. Fifty-one square miles of New York were flooded by Sandy’s storm surge, 300,000 homes and 23,400 businesses were inundated. “Smart growth” plans didn’t prevent that.
All of this shows the folly of trying to force-feed natural disasters into neat ideological categories. Major storms cause major damage, and sometimes even the best mitigation plans can’t prevent it. No doubt Houston will learn lessons from Harvey about drainage and building that might reduce the damage the next time. Risk-based insurance for property would also help reduce taxpayer losses.
Texans are used to being sneered at by coastal elites, and we trust they’ll reject this attempt at their moral improvement too. Their rebuilding will be that much faster, and cheaper, because they have a resilient economy built on energy and zoning laws that make housing affordable. They also know the difference between an act of nature and progressive political opportunism.
2. The Coming Global Car Wreck
Dieselgate is not the fruit of an industry cartel but of politicians ignoring cost and benefit.
By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., WSJ, Aug 25, 2017
SUMMARY: Jenkins writes:
“German Chancellor Angela Merkel was tactfully on vacation but came back earlier this month to add her voice to the latest ‘dieselgate’ scandal involving her country’s car makers. The industry threw away “incredible public trust,” she declared at a rally kicking off her re-election campaign, and the job falls exclusively on auto makers to “win it back.”
Thus did Ms. Merkel create the required cosmetic distance between herself and an industry whose problems are entirely manufactured by politicians.
The prominent German magazine Der Spiegel has spent much of the summer hoarsely condemning VW, BMW , Audi , Mercedes and Porsche. First it accused them of running an illegal cartel because they cooperated in meeting certain technical obligations related to Europe’s mandated insistence on diesel vehicles. In installment two, the magazine accused them of besmirching the reputation of “Made in Germany” in the eyes of the world.
Never mind that such besmirching is hardly obvious from record global sales lately of BMW and Mercedes cars. Also missing from the magazine’s 9,000-word diatribe is a recognition that Germany’s dieselgate and associated scandals arise entirely from European politicians’ politically-correct pursuit of meaningless reductions in CO2.
Switching to diesel from gasoline, the monumental regulatory effort launched by the European Union in the late 1990s, ended up delivering only thimbles-full of avoided greenhouse pollution compared to competing gasoline engines. But it also made the air in European cities significantly less breathable thanks to diesel particulates and nitrogen oxides.
Yet there has been no inclination to question the cost-benefit basis of the anticarbon crusade. Instead, Europe is doubling down by forcing car makers to build electric cars, while Der Spiegel is trying to shift the blame for the diesel experiment’s failure to alleged anticompetitive actions by German car makers.
In meetings that began decades earlier under the auspices of a national auto trade group, car makers agreed on the need to avoid using up excessive space for large AdBlue tanks (a fluid to mitigate diesel emissions) to save room for occupants and golf bags—i.e., to make sure their cars remained salable.
They also agreed on the need to avoid annoying owners by requiring frequent AdBlue fill-ups—so their cars would remain salable.
[AdBlue is a diesel exhaust fluid made up of urea and deionized water.]
We’re told this was tantamount to a group decision to cheat on emissions controls. Except it wasn’t. BMW, for one, developed a secondary means to clean its exhaust in addition to AdBlue. It was expensive but it worked.
In fact, German car companies compete fiercely with each other on price, features, performance and marketing jazz. They also compete with Lexus, Acura, Cadillac, Jaguar, Infiniti, etc., etc.
These other companies were free to crowd out passengers and luggage to make room for AdBlue if that’s what customers wanted. (They didn’t.) Red herrings make good distractions. The distraction here is from the folly of the underlying CO2 policy.
What the scandal really teaches is the remarkable political paradox of today’s global car industry. It delivers complex products that meet the high standards of consumers, yet it bears a burden of political meddling that should make its competitive existence impossible.
How is this miracle achieved? Dieselgate explains all: Once politicians and regulators decided to make diesel the star of their fake climate show, they turned to providing loopholes to ensure their cars remained marketable. VW’s behavior (as uncovered by U.S. regulators) was egregious, programming its engine software to draw on the AdBlue tank only when its car was on a test-bed for regulators seeking to confirm (wink, wink) that its emissions were OK. Except it has now become clear that other car makers engaged in similar cheating, including some that could not be part of any German cartel because they weren’t German.
All this, we repeat, so Europe’s politicians could pretend to be doing something about global warming.
Now comes a new chapter. How will the public-relations damage be apportioned between car makers and the political class over a grotesque boondoggle? Don’t be surprised when this scandal is swept imperceptibly toward the memory hole once Ms. Merkel has been safely returned to office, as every poll suggest she will.
Why? Because, from Berlin to Beijing to Sacramento, Calif., governments are already engaged in a new and even more implausible magic act: How to preserve their car industries and jobs while simultaneously mandating that car makers produce electric vehicles that can only be sold to the public at a steep loss in a world where oil is $50 a barrel and gasoline engines continue to make impressive efficiency gains.
In short, a car wreck is coming that will make dieselgate look like a fender bender.