Masters: Midwest deluge enhanced by near-record Gulf of Mexico sea surface temperatures – Unprecedented flooding predicted for Ohio River

by admin on April 28, 2011

This week’s storm system, in combination with heavy rains earlier this month, have pushed the Ohio River and Mississippi River to near-record levels near their confluence. The Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois is expected to crest at 60.5 feet on May 1. This would exceed 100-year flood stage, and be the highest flood in history, besting the 59.5′ mark of 1937.

The latest River Flood Outlook from NOAA shows major flooding is occurring over many of the nation’s major rivers.

Multiple torrential downpours are setting the stage for more 100-year floods in the coming days, as meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters reports today.

Extreme weather disasters, especially deluges and floods, are on the rise — and the best analysis says human-caused warming is contributing (see Two seminal Nature papers join growing body of evidence that human emissions fuel extreme weather, flooding).  Last year, we had Tennessee’s 1000-year deluge aka Nashville’s ‘Katrina’.  And  Coastal North Carolina’s suffered its second 500-year rainfall in 11 years.

Craig Fugate, who heads the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in December, “The term ‘100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year” (see Munich Re: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change”).

Former hurricane-hunter Masters has a good analysis of how the “Midwest deluge [is] enhanced by near-record Gulf of Mexico sea surface temperatures”:

The deluge of rain that caused this flood found its genesis in a flow of warm, humid air coming from the Gulf of Mexico. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Gulf of Mexico are currently close to 1°C above average. Only two Aprils since the 1800s (2002 and 1991) have had April SSTs more than 1 °C above average, so current SSTs are among the highest on record.

These warm ocean temperatures helped set record high air temperatures in many locations in Texas yesterday, including Galveston (84°F, a tie with 1898), Del Rio (104°F, old record 103° in 1984), San Angelo (97°F, old record 96° in 1994). Record highs were also set on Monday in Baton Rouge and Shreveport in Louisiana, and in Austin, Mineral Wells, and Cotulla la Salle in Texas.

Since this week’s storm brought plenty of cloud cover that kept temperatures from setting record highs in many locations, a more telling statistic of how warm this air mass was is the huge number of record high minimum temperature records that were set over the past two days. For example, the minimum temperature reached only 79°F in Brownsville, TX Monday morning, beating the previous record high minimum of 77°F set in 2006. In Texas, Austin, Houston, Port Arthur, Cotulla la Salle, Victoria, College Station, Victoria, Corpus Christi, McAllen, and Brownsville all set record high minimums on Monday, as did New Orleans, Lafayette, Monroe, Shreveport, and Alexandria in Louisiana, as well as Jackson and Tupelo in Mississippi.

Since record amounts of water vapor can evaporate into air heated to record warm levels, it is not a surprise that incredible rains and unprecedented floods are resulting from this month’s near-record warm SSTs in the Gulf of Mexico.

This final point is the link to human-caused climate change.

Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, explained this key connection between human-caused global warming and superstorms in an interview with ClimateProgress last year,:

“I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”

Back in August, Trenberth told the NY Times, “It’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.”

Masters showed back in January the connection between high SSTs and record flooding around the world:

If we look at the departure of temperature from average for the moisture source regions of the globe’s four most extreme flooding disasters over the past 12 months, we find that these ocean temperatures ranked 2nd or 3rd warmest, going back through 111 years of history:

  • January 2011 Brazilian floods: 2nd warmest SSTs on record, +1.05°C (20S to 25S, 45W to 40W)
  • November 2010 Colombia floods: 3rd warmest SSTs on record, +0.65°C (10N to 0N, 80W to 75W)
  • December 2010 Australian floods: 3rd warmest SSTs on record, +1.05°C (10S to 25S, 145E to 155E)
  • July 2010 Pakistani floods: 2nd warmest SSTs on record, +0.95°C (Bay of Bengal, 10N to 20N, 80E to 95E)

Finally, we’ve only warmed about a degree and a half Fahrenheit in the past century.  The problem for our children and grandchildren is that, if we continue anywhere near our current greenhouse gas emissions pathway, we are on track to warm five times times that or more this century (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F — with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F ).

In short, we ain’t seen nothing yet!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Vic April 28, 2011 at 2:17 am

Adelady @ 17,

“just focus on that 4% extra moisture figure.”

If at a party or a pub, a good, mind-blowing way of broaching this subject is to mention the 4% extra condensation on the outside of the glass your listener is holding, and the glass of that guy over there, and hers over there…

Ben Lieberman April 28, 2011 at 2:39 am

NPR in its wisdom chose to utilize John Christy as their expert in a recent story. He so downplayed the possibility that the recent spate of tornadoes was at all unusual that even the host expressed some incredulity.

For those who wish to subject themselves:http://www.npr.org/2011/04/23/135663193/u-s-experiences-wild-weather

Vic April 28, 2011 at 3:11 am

Merrelyn @ 18,

“Tornado rips through Westminster Abbey just as Kate says ‘I do’”.

Not sure we could rely on that, but I certainly get the impression that Britain’s last ever monarch can now be seen as a glint in William’s eye.

Dan Miller April 28, 2011 at 3:52 am

@3 Gnobuddy: “Is there time?” I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with Jim Hansen and I have to say he is more optimistic than I am. When I brought up the subject of what would happen if we ceased emissions tomorrow, he thought we would be in decent shape and CO2 levels would begin moving back towards 350.

He did say that he thought we only had a year or two (”10 years would be too long”) to *begin* reducing CO2 emissions, or else we will eventually end up with a world without ice. After a few more years, the rate of reductions needed to get back to 350 would be beyond what we could achieve (except, of course, for collapse).

He and I are not optimistic about the path we are on.

Richard Brenne April 28, 2011 at 4:02 am

with the doves (#14) – I agree with everything you say so well!

Like all generalizations this is a gross one, but generally there are two kinds of thinking and speaking about climate change by scientists. One is conservative and won’t say anything without abundant and abundantly clear data to back it up.

The other is more candid and courageous and connects dots, looks at the big picture and talks about possibilities even when there is uncertainty.

The conservative approach includes many scientists who want the most bomb-proof data they can get before saying or doing anything.

But I think the best scientists and the ones I appreciate and respect most talk about possibilities even when there are uncertainties, and those would include Jim Hansen, Kevin Trenberth, Tom Karl and unfortunately few others.

Tom Karl told me he felt that there was a relationship between global warming and an increase in tornadoes, and that surprised me because I haven’t seen that reflected in scientific papers yet (maybe someone else has?). When I said something to that effect he said that with more water vapor and energy in the system, when cold dry air would inevitably collide with warmer and moister air, more tornadoes would result.

As the longtime head of the National Climatic Data Center, former President of the AMS and the author of countless papers I respect, I’m going to listen to Tom (and Kevin, and Jim) more about this than more cautious and less candid scientists, and certainly all those less expert about this kind of big picture perspective than they are, which includes pretty much everyone.

Merrelyn Emery April 28, 2011 at 4:50 am

Lewis C #8. While you wait for a Miami or Huston, with an estimated viewing audience of 2b, would this help?

Tornado rips through Westminster Abbey just as Kate says ‘I do’, ME

adelady April 28, 2011 at 5:34 am

When it comes to downpours causing floods and the is it/ isn’t it caused by climate disruption question, just focus on that 4% extra moisture figure.

After a flood, it’s usually possible to get numbers for the quantity of water which fell in the days under discussion. Simply take away 4% and see how that affects the flood level reached. Of course, there’s an implicit fib in there – it’s not so simple to do the calculations. But the _concept_ is simple and people might understand a bit better if the result is presented that way.

(There’s another fib lurking. 4% is the global average – not likely to apply in a region affected by ultra-high SST. But that’s a bit complicated for general discussion with non-experts.)

Barry April 28, 2011 at 6:21 am

The important thing for all the folks to remember that find themselves in harms way from this extreme weather is that the GOP has assured us that there is nothing we can do about it.

If the increase in extreme weather events was caused by fossil fuel pollution trapping extra heat…well, then we could do something to stop it from getting a lot worse.

But as Republicans all say: humans are not affecting the climate in any meaningful way. America according to them is a nation too incompetent to understand complex scientific problem or how to solve them.

It is so reassuring to know that if all the wacky and dangerous weather keeps getting worse that we are just plain old helpless to do anything about it.

Richard Brenne April 28, 2011 at 7:15 am

dhogaza (#13) – Of course Silas’ tsunami comment made me react the same way, but the rest of Silas Barta’s comment at #4 was excellent.

The way I look at it, all human impacts could come under an umbrella term I call Anthro-Earth, or the Earth of Humans. And by human impacts I include anything that lessens the ability of our current civilization to sustain or perpetuate itself indefinitely.

One of the biggest and least-appreciated of these categories is building massive amounts of infrastructure of all kinds that is in harm’s way, in this case from a subduction zone that can generate our planet’s largest earthquakes, and also from tsunamis that hit the east coast of Japan about as much as any place in the world.

In addition to all the infrastructure, building SIX (6!) nuclear power plants in harm’s way is extremely foolish and we’re seeing about the worst-case scenario as a result of that foolishness.

Then as many of us have discussed and Climate Progress has reported, experts like Bill McGuire feel that there’s growing evidence that when icecaps like Greenland’s melt and all that weight is re-distributed throughout the oceans (more from the poles toward the equator and northern to southern hemisphere) this could act like lighting the fuses that trigger the powder keg of tectonic stresses, possibly triggering earthquakes earlier than they might otherwise have occurred. Here’s the link to last year’s CP post about this:

http://climateprogress.org/ 2010/ 04/ 19/ global-warming-link-volcanoes-earthquakes-landslides-tsunamis-royal-society-scientists/

I spoke to several scientists at the USGS and geologists specializing in earthquakes about this, and they agreed that while the exact links are not yet certain, the discussion and study of them is appropriate.

The best evidence for this appears to have come after the filling of the Mediterranean to its current height, during which time an estimated 300% more volcanic activity has reportedly occurred.

So while you’re right that Silas was making a link that has not been clearly established, I think the general tone of Silas’ comment absent that one connection is entirely appropriate. We need to get more excited by all the dangers we’re causing, not less. . .

with the doves April 28, 2011 at 8:03 am

That “no single event can be attributed to global warming” talking point … what does it even mean?

Weather is influenced by many factors, including the amount of heat the air and ocean, which is higher now in the global warming era. So every weather event is affected by AGW. No weather event is due solely to AGW. (It may be provable that some mega event in the future would never have happened w/o AGW – but that’s an awfully high bar.)

And what is a “single weather event” anyway?? One storm? One tornado outbreak? One nine-day stretch with multiple outbreaks? One especially wet month? One cold year? One raindrop?

That talking point needs to go. It’s a bogus set-up that leads even the good guys to sound mealy-mouthed. The second Trenberth quote is good.

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