Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 31, 2015

El Niño begins

Filed under: Disaster,Mitigation,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 31, 2015

According to Reuters:

With further rain looming, more families abandoned their homes on Sunday in Paraguay, the country hardest hit by the worst flooding in decades in the area bordering Uruguay and Argentina, which has already forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate.

The El Niño weather phenomenon has exacerbated summer rains, swelling rivers in the region. The River Paraguay, which flows by the country’s capital, Asuncion, has already reached 7.82 meters (25.66 feet), its highest level since 1992.

According to The Age (Sydney):

A massive firefighting effort continued on Monday to combat the [Otways] blaze. The resources included 397 staff (including 273 firefighters), 69 four-wheel drive vehicles with water tanks 11 fire tankers, bulldozers and six aircraft.

“This fire will be with us for a period of time. People need to be ready to respond to any messages from authorities, and need to have a plan for the possibility of this fire growing in size,” Mr Rourke said.

The fire has been burning since December 19, when it was sparked by a lightning strike. It has now burnt about 2300 hectares. It destroyed 116 houses in the communities of Wye River and Separation Creek.

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology:

Australia’s weather is influenced by many climate drivers. El Niño and La Niña have perhaps the strongest influence on year-to-year climate variability in Australia…most major Australian droughts have been associated with El Niño.

According to The Guardian (Manchester)

From some of the worst floods ever known in Britain, to record-breaking temperatures over the Christmas holiday in the US and and forest fires in Australia, the link between the tumultuous weather events experienced around the world in the last few weeks is likely to be down to the natural phenomenon known as El Niño making the effects of man-made climate change worse, say atmospheric scientists…“What we are experiencing is typical of an early winter El Niño effect,” said Adam Scaife, the head of Met Office long-range forecasting.

According to the United Nations:

Some 2.3 million people in Central America will need food aid as the current El Niño weather pattern, one of the strongest on record, exacerbates a prolonged drought, the United Nations warned today in the latest alert on the impact of the phenomenon which causes floods in parts of the world and drought in others.

“Unfortunately, another dry spell in 2015, this time exacerbated by El Niño, has again caused significant losses during the first crop cycle, the Primera season,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Miguel Barreto said in Panama…

The WFP alert came just two days after UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Anthony Lake warned that 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water due to El Niño in eastern and southern Africa alone.

Mr. Barreto said $75 million is needed in Central America, where the drought has already lasted two years in the Dry Corridor that stretches from Guatemala to Nicaragua, but resources are being depleted. 

 On Monday December 28, the Dallas Morning News headline read “TOTAL DEVASTATION” and reported:

Hundreds huddled in shelters Sunday while trying to add up the damage to their homes, churches and schools caused by deadly storms that blew through North Texas.

Eleven people, including an infant, were killed in Dallas and Collin counties, and as many as 11 tornadoes were reported to the National Weather Service.

According to USA Today:

Hardest hit Saturday was Garland, Texas, a city of 230,000 people 20 miles northeast of Dallas, where eight people died and 15 were injured, police Lt. Pedro Barineau said. Most of the fatalities occurred on highways as multiple cars became caught in the severe weather, and several vehicles plunged as far as 17 feet from a bridge, authorities said. Barineau said 600 homes and businesses were damaged…

The tornadoes that roared through Texas reached as high as EF-4, with winds reaching 175 mph, Oram said. This is the USA’s first EF-4 tornado to strike in December in 15 years. It is also the farthest west a tornado of that strength has formed in December, according to the tornado research site U.S. Tornadoes.

Until the holiday season outbreak, only 10 people had died in tornadoes across the nation this year, the fewest number on record. Wiley blamed the rare run of December tornadoes in part on a strong El Niño that has been pushing spring-like temperatures across much of the North and East. El Niño also can take some blame for the snowstorm — another trait of the system is colder than normal temperatures in parts of the South, Wiley said.

According to The Weather Channel:

Today the Mississippi River at St. Louis is expected to crest close to its second highest level on record, the April 28, 1973 flood crest (43.2 feet). This is still short of the record 1993 crest (49.6 feet)… The St. Louis crest will then combine with the rain-swollen Ohio River and move downstream into the Mid-South and Lower Mississippi Valleys later next week and into mid-January.

According to AccuWeather:

Since December and November have been so warm and so wet, the atmosphere and watershed are behaving more like the spring. Temperatures over much of the Mississippi Valley have averaged 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit above normal and featured highs in the 60s and 70s during December. During November and December, frequent storms loaded with abundant moisture have delivered rainfall well above average to much of the Mississippi Basin. The pattern is typical of an El Niño, but rainfall of this magnitude has crossed into uncharted territory for the region.

According to Scientific American:

The Amazon forests of Central and South America are at increased risk of fires in 2016 due to the ongoing El Niño, according to NASA scientists.

This El Niño, which has helped trigger more than 100,000 fires in Indonesia and spewed an estimated 1.75 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere, will next threaten tropical forests in Southeast Asia and in southern Mexico, Guatemala and other countries in Central America, said James Randerson, an Earth system scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

The higher fire risk in the tropics is one of many of El Niño’s impacts that scientists are observing. In rain-starved California, models are projecting that the weather phenomenon, which is the strongest seen since 1997-98, will likely include heavy precipitation beginning in mid- to late December.

As previously reported by HLSWatch, since at least October FEMA and NOAA have encouraged Californians, in particular, to recognize the risk presented by this year’s El Nino.

October 27, 2015

Strategic whiplash: fire to flood

Filed under: Climate Change,Futures,Mitigation,Preparedness and Response,Recovery,Resilience — by Philip J. Palin on October 27, 2015

California is now in its fourth year of drought. In a state this big precipitation varies widely, but for example, in Bakersfield the average annual precipitation is 6.4 inches and through the end of September roughly 4.5 inches.  This year’s total at the end of September was 2.8 inches. The winter snowpack was almost non-existent this year.  The lowest in 500 years according to some.

The State of California reports reservoir levels as of October 15 are roughly two-thirds below capacity and less than half historic averages. Some examples: Castaic Lake 31% of capacity (40% of year to date average); Don Pedro 31% of capacity (47% of average); Exchequer 8% of capacity (18% of average); Folsom Lake 17% of capacity (31% of average); Lake Oroville 29% of capacity (48% of average); Lake Perris 36% (47% of average); Millerton Lake 35% of capacity (90% of average); New Melones 11% of capacity (20% of average); Pine Flat 12% of capacity (34% of average); San Luis 18% of capacity (35% of average); Lake Shasta 33% of capacity (56% of average); and Trinity Lake 21% of capacity (32% of average).

Since early this year Californians have cut their total water usage. For June, July, and August the cumulative statewide savings rate was 28.7% equal to 611,566 acre-feet of water saved. The Governor’s office has set a goal of saving 1.2 million acre-feet of water by February 2016. Some are seeing signs of a long-term shift in cultural attitudes toward water use.  Last week the LA Times advocated public shaming of Southern California water hogs.

Since January 1 there have been 5942 wildfires in California, consuming 307,335 acres, almost triple a five year average.

All of which further complicates the already tough job of selling flood insurance in California.

Yet last week Accuweather reported accumulating evidence for a powerful 2015-2016 El Nino, beginning to impact California in late November into December.

The most likely, and most impactful, scenario during this winter is that California will get significant precipitation in the form of both rain and snow.

“California will be much more active weather-wise this winter than last winter,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Ben Noll said.

Copious amounts of rain from systems over the same area, a theme which occurs often during this type of weather pattern, can lead to problems for California.

Locals may be faced with flooding and mudslides, which could prove devastating for home and property owners. This will be especially problematic over recent burn scar areas, where rampant wildfires have charred millions of acres.

According to the Census Bureau there are 12,542,460 households in California.  According to FEMA there are 229,538 flood insurance policies in force.  Hmmm?

Last week NOAA and FEMA made a concerted effort across California to raise-the-warning and encourage preparations, including purchasing flood insurance.  I happened to be in Los Angeles at the same time.  City, county, and state officials are taking the flood risk very seriously.  But it does require a particular exercise of the will to prepare for floods in the midst of drought.

And selling flood insurance in these conditions: How about ice to Eskimos or sand in Timbuktu or coal to Newcastle?  There must be a better way to recognize and mitigate the risk.