Speak up for NASA’s Earth Science funding

A post by Anne JeffersonIt’s Earth Science Week and Congress is still debating the budget for this fiscal year. That means that science funding is still on the line. The American Geophysical Union is running a campaign encouraging members to speak up for NASA’s Earth Science division which faced steep cuts in the White House budget proposal. Follow the link here to send a letter to your senators and representative. (You don’t have to be an AGU member to take part.) If you need some inspiration, here’s the letter I wrote to my representatives.

Dear Senators Portman and Brown and Representative Ryan,

In honor of Earth Science Week (8-14 October 2017), I’m writing to urge you to provide robust support for NASA’s Earth Science Division, which is invaluable to our nation and our local community.

As recent hurricanes and wildfires have vividly demonstrated, millions of Americans depend on NASA’s eyes in the sky to keep them informed and safe. Our economy also benefits massively from being able to prepare in advance for weather disruptions.

Closer to home, NASA satellites are providing important data on the harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie and our inland lakes. These satellite images are giving us important clues as to how lake conditions, river contributions, and weather interact to produce these toxic blooms.

As a hydrology professor at Kent State University, I use NASA products in my research and teaching every week. The new soil moisture active passive (SMAP) mission will be hugely valuable for understanding how changes in land use and climate conditions influence flooding and drought. The GRACE mission, which recently came to an end, was an important tool for understanding large scale groundwater declines and ice sheet changes. As there is now a gap until a replacement satellite can be launched, we are losing critical data on our changing planet.

It’s important to keep continuous and robust funding for NASA’s Earth Science division in order to keep NASA missions on track, so that we don’t fly blind in the face of severe weather, algae blooms, droughts, and all of dynamics of our home planet.

Thank you for your leadership and continued support of science.


Anne Jefferson

Categories: by Anne, hydrology, public science, society

Hurricane Harvey and the Houston Flood: Did Humans Make it Worse? (Part 2: Urbanization)

A post by Anne JeffersonThere’s been a lot of speculation and discussion about the role of urbanization in contributing to the flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Fortunately, urban hydrology is my specialty, so even though I’ve never been to Houston, I feel like I can offer some insights. (Also, read part 1 on the climate change aspects of this disaster.)

Many of the damaged buildings were outside designated “100-year” floodplains. Why is that?
First, given that Harvey produced more rainfall than the contiguous US had ever before recorded from a single storm (51.88″ in one location), I think it’s safe to say that this storm has historically had a <<1% chance of occurring. In other words, based on historical data, we wouldn’t expect this storm to occur 1 time in 100 years in Houston, because nothing anywhere near has been has ever occurred before. But, history of course, is not a very good guide to a climate-changed present and future (see below).

Second, the FEMA maps are out of date in many areas. Not only do they not consider climate change, but they only account for the level of urbanization that has occurred at the time the map is made. They don’t take into account planned or projected future urbanization, levee building, etc.*

Yet, these maps aren’t updated very regularly and can be a decade or more out of date in some areas (mostly rural). Plus, local politicians don’t want to show that a large part of their community is in a floodplain (and require more expensive buildings and flood insurance), so there’s local pressure to keep delineated floodplains as small as possible. Finally, it doesn’t help, that the flood mapping program has always been under-funded and is a popular target for funding cuts.

We need to wrap our head around the scale of the damage. There are at least 90,000 residential structures damaged in 3 Texas counties, based on an early FEMA estimate. Harris County (where Houston is) officials are estimating up to 136,000 homes destroyed. I’ve seen one estimate that 40-50% of the damaged homes are located outside the mapped floodplain.

Did urbanization and impervious surface make flooding worse?

No. Impervious surface (pavement and rooftops) prevents infiltration. But there isn’t a landscape in the world that can take 50” of rain and infiltrate it without flooding (or landslides). Even if your landscape can infiltrate whatever rainfall is landing on the surface, the soil will wet up from the bottom as water tables rise toward the surface. And when the water table is at the surface, it doesn’t matter what your infiltration capacity is, water can’t move down.

Furthermore, Houston is in the Coastal Plain, which is made up of lots of fine-grained sediments, notoriously poor for infiltration. Southern Harris County’s soils are classified as group D, meaning that they are the worse of four classes of soil for infiltrating water.

Yes. Urban development that encroaches on natural water storage areas – floodplains and wetlands – makes flooding worse elsewhere. (And more to the point, it puts people and property in harm’s way.) If you fill in the low areas, install drainage pipes to shunt water elsewhere, or build levees to keep water off the floodplain, then that water has to go somewhere, and in fairly flat areas like Houston, that somewhere will become everywhere. Houston and its suburbs have faced criticism for rampant wetland destruction and for building whole neighborhoods in designated floodplains. The New York Times has a fantastic set of animated graphics that show how development overlays with floodplains in the Houston area (and how flood damages from Harvey aren’t restricted to mapped floodplains. I’m taking the risk of reproducing two screenshots below that I think are particularly good example of this phenomenon.

Development on a Houston area floodplain. via New York Times (click the link above and read their article too)

Won’t insurance pay for the damage to people’s houses?
Only if you have flood insurance, because standard homeowners and renters policies don’t cover flood damage. If you live in the 100-year floodplain and have a mortgage on your house, you are required to buy flood insurance, which can run $1000s per year. If you don’t live in a designated 100-year floodplain, flood insurance is totally optional. It’s also less expensive, since your risk of flooding is lower, but who among us says “Sure, I’ll buy totally optional insurance at a cost of several hundred dollars per year for something the government says isn’t going to happen at my house?” In all likelihood, the majority of Houston-area flood victims will not have any flood insurance to pay for their lost possessions and houses.

For those who do have flood insurance, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) will help pay for them to repair and rebuild – in the same risky location. One percent of properties insured by the NFIP take up 25-30% of its payouts. The program loses money every year, and US taxpayers foot the bill.

Can we engineer our way out of disasters like this?
Stormwater management is not designed for extreme events. Most stormwater control measures are designed for the type of storm that happens a few times per year. In Harris County, stormwater controls have what’s called a “water quality volume” that is designed to treat 1.5″ of rain in 24 hours. Anything above that does not have to be detained or infiltrated by the stormwater control. Remember, the whole Houston metro area got >30″ of rain over 5 straight days and a new contiguous US record of 51.88″ was set in one location. Why aren’t stormwater controls designed for bigger storms? It would cost more and they would take up more valuable real estate. And most of the time, that extra storage wouldn’t be put to use. (Of course, it doesn’t help if a large number of your stormwater controls aren’t performing up to design standards.)

Flood control reservoirs work, to a point, but then they run out of storage volume and might even make things worse. Flood control reservoirs might be designed to reduce the effects of the 100-year flood, which has a 1% chance of occuring in any given year. For the Houston area, the 1% rainfall is 13” of rain in 24 hours. But that’s happened >8 times in last 27 years, so clearly the math is a bit off (likely out of date, thanks in part to climate change). Houston has two flood control reservoirs, Addicks and Barker, built in the 1930s, that sit dry until a flood comes along. Of their 10 highest levels, 9 have happened since 1990 and 6 have happened since 2000 (and that was before Harvey). When Harvey roared in, the reservoirs filled up completely and over topped for the first time in their history.

After flood control reservoirs are full, they can’t help store any additional rainfall and runoff. Plus, management operations will swiftly turn from storing the flood to protecting the structural integrity of the reservoirs. Meaning that the dam operators will start to release extra water downstream – even though that makes downstream flooding worse – because they don’t want the dam to fail. You don’t want a 100-foot high wall of water rushing towards downtown Houston either. The Houston reservoirs were forced to release water during the height of the flooding, making things worse in downstream neighborhoods. But dam failure is a risk that no engineer or hydrologist is willing to take.

What Barker Reservoir looks like empty. (US Army Corps of Engineers photo, public domain.)

Just like with stormwater controls, we don’t build flood control reservoirs for the most extreme events, because designing bigger capacities to accommodate a rare storm increases costs dramatically. This is particularly true in a flat area like Houston, where every additional foot of height on a dam means a much larger footprint for the reservoir, locking that area away from development.

Levees – walls built between the river and neighborhoods – might work locally, but they make flooding worse elsewhere. And like every other form of engineering, they can be under-designed for extreme events. And they can fail.

So what can be do to avoid a disaster like this in the future?

  • Stop filling wetlands. Support wetland restoration and mitigation efforts.
  • Don’t (re)build in floodplains. (Even beyond the official 100-year floodplain.)
  • Consider the likelihood of enhanced flooding from increased precipitation intensity and sea level rise when making rebuilding and future development decisions.
  • Develop smart, staged evacuation plans for the most flood-risky areas and for vulnerable populations.
  • Advocate for enhanced funding for FEMA’s flood mapping program.
  • Revamp the National Flood Insurance Program.
  • Take immediate action (individually and collectively) to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change.


*A reader alerted me to this 2001 FEMA rule on “Future Conditions Hydrology” which says that at the request of a community, for information purposes only, the maps can reflect future conditions data, as generated by the community, in addition to the current 100-year (1%) “base flood elevation.” Areas outside the current 1% floodplain, but inside the future 1% floodplain are designated as area X. In those areas, homeowners are not required to buy flood insurance by federal rules, though a private lender could make that requirement. Similarly, under federal rules, structures would not have to be elevated, though local laws might require flood production in these areas. “Future conditions hydrology means the flood discharges associated with projected land-use conditions based on a community’s zoning maps and/or comprehensive land-use plans and without consideration of projected future construction of flood detention structures or projected future hydraulic modifications within a stream or other waterway, such as bridge and culvert construction, fill, and excavation.” Note that “public works in progress including channel modifications, hydraulic control structures, storm drainage systems and various other flood protection projects” had been considered in the FEMA maps since 1995. The TL;DR of all of this is that IF a community requests future conditions be displayed, and does the legwork of figuring out what those future conditions are, they do appear on maps generated since 2001, but they are not federally enforceable.

Categories: by Anne, geohazards, hydrology, society

Hurricane Harvey and the Houston flood: Did Humans Make it Worse? (Part 1: Climate Change)

A post by Anne JeffersonThis Friday at noon, the Kent State University Department of Geology is hosting a panel discussion on the human role in the catastrophic flooding experienced by Houston and surrounding communities in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. I will be one of five faculty participating in the discussion. Since I know that many of you aren’t local, I thought I’d summarize my talking points below.

What’s the connection between climate change, hurricanes, and rain?

Established Physics: Warmer sea surface temperatures lead to more intense hurricanes. And the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are really warm right now. That’s also one of the reasons that Irma has been able to maintain its Category Five status for such an unprecedented length of time. You can read more about how hot waters fuel hurricanes in this NASA Earth Observatory post on Irma.

NASA Earth Observatory image of Irma's path (as of September 6) and sea surface temperatures,

NASA Earth Observatory image of Irma’s path (as of September 6) and sea surface temperatures, September 3-5.

Simple Math: Sea level rise contributes to a higher storm surge. Storm surge wasn’t the problem in Houston, but it was a contributor the major damage that occurred in the coastal communities where Harvey made landfall and it’s a huge piece of the story in the devastating destruction that Irma is causing in the Caribbean right now. Of course, higher storm surges aren’t a problem if you have buildings higher relative to the sea level. But our buildings aren’t rising as fast as sea level, so higher sea levels and higher storm surges mean more storm surge damage.

Established Physics: Warmer atmospheres can hold more water, which leads to more big rains, which leads to more big floods. The physics of increasing saturation capacity with warmer air are taught to every meteorologist, via the Clasius-Claperyon equation. If you are not a meteorologist, Climate Central has a basic primer in the context of hurricanes. When that warm saturated air cools down, that’s when we get tremendous rains, because now the air isn’t warm enough to hang onto all that water vapor. In hurricanes, the cooling of the air (and rain generation) occurs simply because of warm air rising up into cooler parts of the atmosphere.

Climate Central’s graphic illustrating how warm air can hold more water and how that leads to more rain.

Possible: Climate change may lead to more rapid intensification of hurricanes. Harvey was one of the most rapidly intensifying hurricanes on record.

Possible: Climate change creates more ”stationary weather patterns” that hold weather in one place for days. The thing that really turned Harvey into an epic catastrophe for Houston was that it stayed in one place for days, rather than moving on to new places to drench. Michael Mann has a really nice explanation of how stationary weather patterns were in place during Harvey in this piece in the Guardian. Stationary weather patterns have also previously been blamed for terrible peat fires in Siberia and deadly heat waves in Europe, so they are not just a problem for hurricanes.

In my view, the science is incontrovertible, human-caused climate change contributed to the severity of Harvey’s impacts on Texas. I’m sure there are rapid attribution studies already kicking off that will be able to give us some sense of how much worse the wind and rain were as a result of our green house gas emissions.

Read on for Part 2: Did urbanization make the flooding in Houston worse?

Categories: by Anne, climate science, geohazards

#365climateimpacts: A crazy February heatwave and a tornado warning on March 1 (February 16-March 3)

A post by Anne JeffersonHere are two more weeks of daily climate change impacts stories, as part of my #365climateimpacts project. I didn’t have to go very far from home to find inspiration for this fornight of tweets. We had an incredibly unusual heat wave in the Midwest, and March came in like a lion with a 6 am tornado warning. Amidst all the heat, I did also sneak in some glaciers and polar bears and other climate change impacts. Read on for all of the stories…

February 16:
Documenting Glaciers in the Dying Days of Ice. This piece follows the National Park Service photographer charged with capturing images that show how much Glacier National Park’s iconic glaciers have retreated in the last century. Click through to look at some incredible before and after photo pairs.

February 17:
River flows in New England are increasing & they’re delivering more carbon to Gulf of Maine. That could have an effect on algae blooms, ecosystem productivity, and carbon sequestration in coastal waters.

February 18:
Extreme weather is increasing in a changing climate. Akron (Ohio) February temperatures average -2.4C. It’s 18C outside.

A snapshot of some very unusual February weather for northeastern Ohio, via the Weather Underground mobile app.

February 19:
2017 spring in the South is 20 days earlier than the 1981-2010 average. That’s astounding.

February 20:
Who’s still fighting climate change? The US military. Sea level rise is the enemy.

February 21:
Do we have language that describes ways we feel about living in a changing climate? A great essay by Faith Kearns on a interesting initiative to coin words that describe the way we feel about our unusual climatic conditions. I think sorrowbliss begins to describe the ongoing February heatwave we’re experiencing.

February 22:
Colorado River flows will keep shrinking as we warm through the 21st Century, even aside from the greater likelihood of drought. Warmer temperatures increase evaporation & plant water use, and that’s drying out the Colorado River. Link above is to a pretty good summary of a new research paper out in Water Resources Research.

February 23:

February 24:
Scarily warm. Andrew Freedman explains what’s behind the February heatwave that is shattering records. A while ago, I thought: when I’m done talking about snow & atmospheric rivers for #365climateimpacts, I should talk about Australian heat, and I should, because it’s a huge climate change impact. But then my kids’ friends started wearing shorts to school. In February.

February 25:
This cartoon perfectly captures my sorrowbliss at the freakishly hot weather we’ve been having in February. Mad appreciation to the cartoonist, Sarah Andersen.

Dr. Warren Washington (UCAR photo)

February 26:
Dr. Warren Washington is global climate modeler who won the National Medal of Science for his contributions to the field. He’s one of many Black American scientists and engineers who have made contributions that we often fail to recognize and celebrate. Here’s one brief bio, and here’s another.

February 27 (Polar Bear Day):
Here’s a great fact-filled 1 minute video about polar bears, those charismatic emblems of climate change. I know polar bears are the stereotypical mascots of climate change, but I’ve loved them since I was 4 & got to see them in Churchill, Canada. That’s why they work as the most recognizable mascot of climate change, because so many people (like me) fell in love with them as children. My 2 year old’s beloved teddy is a white bear. Wouldn’t it be great if weren’t extinct (or only in zoos) by the time he’s my age?

February 28:
As it warms, California will have more floods. Levees & dams not built for winter rains. They are built to store and contain spring snowmelt.

March 1:
Today I was awoken by a tornado warning. Incredibly unusual at this time of year in Ohio. Effects of February hot spell. (I’ve not heard of any confirmed tornado touchdowns today in NE Ohio, but to even have storms capable of tornadogenesis is super-unusual.)

March 2:
The Gulf of Mexico didn’t cool below 23 degrees Celsius this winter, for the first time ever. These warm temperatures may increase tornadoes in the US, but there doesn’t seem to be a link with hurricanes (which are affected by summer water temperatures).

Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, 28 February 2017 (via Ars Technica)

Categories: by Anne, climate science, geohazards, hydrology, ice and glaciers

#365climateimpacts: Snow, ice, flooding, and football (February 1-15)

In January, I launched the #365climateimpacts project, in which I’ll spend a year tweeting stories of the many ways climate change is impacting people, ecosystems, and the earth; ideas for how to communicate about climate change more effectively; and analyses of technologies and policy proposals that show promise for combatting climate change. Here’s what I’ve shared in the last two weeks.

February 1:
The Climate Feedback project looks like an awesome way to see how scientists read climate change news.

The most recent analysis on the site is of an article called "The big melt: global sea ice at a record low", published by USA Today.

The most recent analysis on the site is of an article called “The big melt: global sea ice at a record low”, published by USA Today.

February 2 (Groundhog Day):
Climate Change versus Groundhogs: Even Common Species Will Suffer. (Not pictured: the groundhog who is digging up by back garden.)

February 3:
Melting glaciers affect water supply in Andes of Peru & scientists are on it. Video by @LaurenDSomers.

February 4:
Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 4.01.04 PM

I see a trend – and my eyes don’t deceive. Great Lakes annual average ice cover declined 71% from 1973-2010.

February 5 (Superbowl Sunday):
Is Climate Change Making Temperatures Too Hot for High School Football? Will it get too hot for football in the South? State rules aim to prevent heat deaths.

February 6:
Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 2.55.54 PM
What does a graph like this mean? It means ocean is taking up heat that CO2 emissions would otherwise add to atmosphere.

February 7:
I got a bit gif happy with today’s #365climateimpacts tweetstream, so you should really head over to twitter to enjoy the thread. I like snow. I like to sled, build snowmen, snowshoe, and how pretty snow is. Loss of snow is one reason I care about climate change. Today it is 57 F and raining steadily here in NE Ohio. I keep thinking about how we’d have a foot of snow if it were cold enough. Instead, I spent an hour in my class talking about the fun ways hydrologists have of measuring snow. With bare ground outside.

The average US snow season shortened by 2 weeks since 1972. Snow covered area is decreasing. The figure below is from the US EPA’s great Climate Change Indicators site, under the heading “Snow Cover.

This figure shows the timing of each year’s snow cover season in the contiguous 48 states and Alaska, based on an average of all parts of the country that receive snow every year. The shaded band spans from the first date of snow cover until the last date of snow cover.

This figure shows the timing of each year’s snow cover season in the contiguous 48 states and Alaska, based on an average of all parts of the country that receive snow every year. The shaded band spans from the first date of snow cover until the last date of snow cover.

Climate normals say that my area averages 45″ of snow per winter, but I haven’t seen anywhere near that most of the 5 years I’ve lived here. Of course, 5 years isn’t long enough to identify any trend (I’m not arguing it is), but my experience fits in the pattern of less snowy winters that are being observed across the United States. Here’s some data stretching 60 years. The figure below is from the US EPA’s great Climate Change Indicators site, under the heading “Snowfall.” Red is less snow, more rain.

This figure shows the average rate of change in total snowfall from 1930 to 2007 at 419 weather stations in the contiguous 48 states. Blue circles represent increased snowfall; red circles represent a decrease.

This figure shows the average rate of change in total snowfall from 1930 to 2007 at 419 weather stations in the contiguous 48 states. Blue circles represent increased snowfall; red circles represent a decrease.

(PDF versions of the Snow Cover and Snowfall pages)

February 8 (National Kite Flying Day):
Good morning, Twitter. It’s National Kite Flying Day! Do you think I can tie that to climate change?
President Obama has been appreciating kite flying, recently.
Back in the day, it wasn’t just surfboards powered by wind. It was big ships. Admittedly, with sails, not kites, but I’m doing the best I can to tie to #nationalkiteflyingday.
Modern shipping produces huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and wind is a renewable, carbon-free energy source.
One idea is to attach big kites to ships to provide free & CO2-free energy.

February 9:
It’s the middle of winter & something is seriously wrong with Arctic sea ice. Sea ice hit record low extents in November, December, and January. Nice reporting at Mashable by Andrew Freedman.

February 10 (National Umbrella Day):I
Climate change intensifies the water cycle, increasing heavy rainfall events. The figure below is from the US EPA’s great Climate Change Indicators site, under the heading “Heavy Precipitation”.

This figure shows the percentage of the land area of the contiguous 48 states where a much greater than normal portion of total annual precipitation has come from extreme single-day precipitation events. The bars represent individual years, while the line is a nine-year weighted average.

This figure shows the percentage of the land area of the contiguous 48 states where a much greater than normal portion of total annual precipitation has come from extreme single-day precipitation events. The bars represent individual years, while the line is a nine-year weighted average.

(pdf version of the Heavy Precipitation Climate Change Indicators page)

February 11:
The first year’s results from NASA Project OMG (Oceans Melting Greenland) reveal that Greenland’s thick glaciers in deep water are most affected by warmer ocean waters. Follow the project lead scientist Josh Willis @omgnasa on Twitter.

February 12:
Suburbs are increasingly threatened by wildfires due to climate change. The wildland-urban ecotone is where warmer winters longer droughts & climate change consequences flare up.

February 13:
With lots of attention focused on the massive rainfall, flooding, and dam and levee safety issues in California, it seemed like a good time to find out how climate change is expected to alter rainfall patterns in the state. Sure enough, “pineapple express” storms (that bring lots of rain to high elevation areas where it normally snows) are expected to increase as the climate warms.

Satellite image showing narrow band of clouds stretching from Hawaii to California

A “pineapple express” atmospheric river takes aim at California in December 2014. (NOAA/NASA GOES image)

February 14:
Minnesota Public Radio ran a fantastic feature on how climate change is affecting ice cover on Lake Superior between Bayfield and Madeling Island, Wisconsin. For 250 year-round residents of the island, winter offers an ice road and the freedom to move back and forth without being tied to the ferry schedule. Except that, for two years running, the ice hasn’t been thick enough to drive on and the ferry has run all winter. This story is personal for me, because my family has owned land on Madeline Island for 4 generations, and I remember the thrill and terror of driving the ice road on winter visits.

The view from our family's land on Madeline Island, February 3rd, 2017. Photo courtesy of J. Jarvis.

The view from our family’s land on Madeline Island, February 3rd, 2017. Photo courtesy of J. Jarvis.

February 15:
The New York Times highlights a rare Republican call to climate action, in which the “elder statesmen” of the Climate Leadership Council calls for a carbon tax. A report out earlier this month from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, shows that 62% of Trump voters support either taxation or regulation of greenhouse gases. The question is: Will Republican politicians listen to the elders or the voters, or will they continue to deny climate change and obstruct meaningful actions to slow its course.

Categories: by Anne, climate science, environment, hydrology, ice and glaciers