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Monday, May 9, 2011

Why Hurricanes, Tornados, Floods, will get Worse


                                'Il faut cultiver notre jardin.' Voltaire

Man's hubris never ceases to amaze:

a) The very notion that the Mississippi basin can be 'tamed' by dikes, levees and our Army Corps of Engineers.

b) The idea that we can strip our planet of trees, and even our prairies of grasses, and not expect changes to our environment.

c) The vanity that we can take examples of fierce storms like Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy, and justify the cost of rebuilding our vulnerable society without modification, because we statistically accept these events as "100 year storms".

The crisis is us, humanity, and how we think.. Our actions come from thoughts. For every action, there exists in nature, and in humanity, an equal and opposite reaction. It's all physics.

We as a people, and I include myself as one of the culpable, show little respect for the continent that we bought for fifteen million dollars and a basket of beads.

We're at war with peoples around the globe, and nature herself. Perhaps everything came just too easily for Homo sapiens to show humility to the earth, and to the planet that gave him life.

It is time to ask, 'Why is all this happening? Killer floods, killer tornados.

Consider for a moment the amount of rainfall on the continental United States. The Mississippi is the world's third largest river basin, second only to the Amazon and the Congo Rivers; it receives and drains more than 60% of all that rainfall hitting the continental US.

Did it ever occur to our feeble brains that we could mess with that? Yet we've wasted billions trying to 'contain' natural flooding events, with dykes and dams along the Mississippi.

Floods and storms are all much much worse in recent years! Why?

I offer a thought experiment:

Take a cookie sheet. Do this in your mind. Really do it if you doubt my results.

Tip it on a slight angle so that it can drain into the sink or bathtub. Now spray some water onto it. Notice how the water immediately moves off the sheet and down the drain. You'll notice that the water 'surges' first and then moves off the sheet at the rate it is sprayed on.

Now drape the cookie sheet with a towel. Spray on the same amount of water. Keep spraying. You will notice that the towel buffers or absorbs the surge of floodwater. Eventually if you spray enough the amount of water exiting the system will equal the amount that is sprayed on. But there will be no 'storm-surge'.

Now stop spraying. You will notice that water still drips from the edge of the towel. This is exactly what thick-soiled natural grasslands and forests do. They absorb water, and release it slowly and evenly to the rivers and seas during drought.

In the Adirondack mountains of Northern New York State, over-lumbering brings river surges that have eliminated much of the native fish populations. The Adirondacks, like the Amazon basin, does not have thick soils. Areas of the land are becoming bald, gravel and rock, where once trees stood. The forests that remain are stunted, shorter, less diverse. And floods have become a problem.

Everywhere it is the same story, whether in forested mountain regions or flat prairies of the West.

A healthy ecosystem of deep tree roots and topsoil moderates the heat of summer, the cold of winter, and the wet of storms. Water levels in America's rivers when the colonists first came to this country were quite moderate.

The worst floods are yet to come. Indeed as Dylan has warned us, 'A hard rain's gonna fall.'

Throughout America, as in the South American Amazon basin, and Africa as well, all over the world, soil levels are declining through wasteful agricultural practices. Nearly all of the rivers of the American west, particularly in the Great Plains, were once lined with deep rooted cottonwood trees, that acted as natural dikes to the rivers. These have almost all been cut down. The natural soil levels in Kansas for instance which historically measured over 30 feet thick, are less than 15 feet thick on average; there's less then ten feet of soil now in many areas.

The towel is getting thin.

All of this means less absorption of rain water. The rain that falls flows more quickly to the edge of the cookie sheet.

A thin layer of soil means the land dries out fast, and then heats up. A hotter landmass creates stronger storms. This isn't advanced math.

We're turning the continent into a sheet of rock, and long before that happens the storm surges along rivers like the Mississippi will be powerful enough to wipe out entire cities.

Why?

Storms of all kinds, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hurricanes particularly, are gaining strength from global warming. Tornados and hurricanes function as a 'land-cooling systems', they simply become more powerful as the land beneath becomes hotter. Temperature extremes have become worse due to misuse of prairie and forested lands, and the tarmacking of vast areas of the country.

As the heat rises, so does nature's attempts to deal with the excess heat.

Expect more beasts such as the mile-wide tornados that virtually destroyed Tuscaloosa Alabama in April 2011 and one month another eirie reminder of the same power of nature wiped out a third of Joplin, Missouri.

Expect more hurricanes like Katrina which waterlogged all of New Orleans, and left thousands homeless. Expect monster storms like Hurricane Sandy, with barely hurricane force winds, but a large enough system to lift storm surges to historic levels over a vast area, flooding homes, public transportation and businesses.

Just as tornados and thunderstorms are a land-cooling system, hurricanes are an ocean-cooling system. As the world's oceans rise heat up so do the strengths and wind velocities of hurricanes. These storms are symptomatic of global warming, a side-effect that even terrestrial scientists were unable to predict.

Fallow land? Have you ever walked out onto a 'fallow' field in Kansas in the summer?

It's as hot as a supermarket parking lot. Oh sure we were all taught in school that letting land go fallow is good.

What might we expect in just a few years?

We will see hurricanes blow skyscrapers over and turn them into piles of rubble. I fully expect to see storms with 200 mile per hour winds within twenty years. [Wrong - I was not aggressive enough in this prediction. Hurricane Dorian produced gusts of over 200 mph]

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