Friday, January 13, 2012

2011: a "Mind-Boggling" Year of Natural Disasters

Flood damage from Hurricane Irene in New Jersey, August 2011

There is a well done 10 minute news segment on PBS about 2011 and its natural disasters. There is a transcript of the show here and here's a copy of the video:

See more from PBS NewsHour.

In the video, Jeff Masters has a useful analogy about climate change and weather being like a baseball player on steroids. You can't say that any specific home run was hit or not hit because someone was on "the juice". However, when previous records are being broken by a large margin, you can start to suspect foul play. The US typically sees 3 billion dollar disasters per year and the previous record was 9. 2011 saw 12 disasters (see a slideshow).

Masters also made connections between drought, food prices and political unrest. Most of what I've talked about so far has been on flooding and flood forecasting, but when you look at the bottom line, drought is more expensive than floods. It is hard for drought to capture the public attention, though, because it is a creeping disaster.

Here's a sample of some of the story's descriptions of floods, droughts and tornadoes:

HARI SREENIVASAN: Then, in late May, a tornado with winds topping 200 miles an hour leveled the town of Joplin, Mo. It was the single deadliest U.S. tornado since 1947, killing nearly 160 people.

MAN: I actually was planning on helping where it was really torn up, but there's nothing really to help. It's just flattened. There's -- I don't know. There's probably three-quarters-of-a-mile of nothing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That same storm system brought triple the normal amount of rainfall to the Ohio River Valley. The rain, coupled with snowmelt, caused both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to flood. In August, Hurricane Irene drenched the Eastern Seaboard. It triggered record flooding in New Jersey, New York State and Vermont, and cost more than $7 billion.

WOMAN: Once the water started coming through the front door. I mean I knew things were getting bad. And then the walls started to break and the molding started to pop, and I knew I was really in trouble.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Southern Plains and Southwest could only hope for some of that rain. Texas suffered through its worst one-year drought, as losses reached $10 billion in crops, livestock and timber.

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