Weather disasters seen costly sign of things to come
By Molly O'Toole | Reuters – Fri, Jul 29, 2011
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is on a pace in 2011 to set a record for the cost of weather-related disasters and the trend is expected to worsen as climate change continues, officials and scientists said on Thursday.
"The economic impact of severe weather events is only projected to grow," Senator Dick Durbin said at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial Services and Government, which he chairs. "We are not prepared. Our weather events are getting worse, catastrophic in fact."
Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, held a hearing on the role of government in mitigating the economic impact of weather disasters as Republicans in the House of Representatives were considering an appropriations bill with a number of riders designed to curtail environmental regulation.
As of June, the United States has seen eight weather disasters exceeding $1 billion each in damage, and the annual hurricane season has hardly begun, said Kathryn Sullivan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and NOAA's Deputy Administrator.
The record is nine in a single year, 2008. But April alone saw separate tornado, wildfire, flood and drought disasters.
"Any one such a event in a year would be considered quite notable, and we had four in totally different hazard categories in the space of a month," Sullivan told Reuters.
The costs of weather-disaster damages have climbed past $32 billion for 2011, according to NOAA estimates.
The agency also projects that water flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from record flooding will create the largest-ever "dead zone" from pollutants led by run-off from agricultural chemicals, threatening marine life and threatening the $2.8 billion annual commercial and recreational fisheries.
CLIMATE AS CONTEXT
"Every weather event that happens nowadays takes place in the context of the changes in the background climate system," University of Illinois scientist Donald Wuebbles, who worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the panel.
"So nothing is entirely 'natural' anymore," he said.
Since roughly 1980, the United States has seen a total of 107 weather-related disasters of over $1 billion each in damage, with total losses exceeding $750 billion.
Almost 90 percent of all Presidentially declared disasters are weather-related, and vulnerability to the impacts is also increasing with population, Sullivan testified.
"The scientific and analytical consensus is ... that patterns and frequencies of weather events are changing," said Sullivan. "That alone says past is no longer prologue."
Durbin flagged the trend of rising weather disasters as a major budget issue for Congress. Over the next 75 years, he said, cumulative exposure of the U.S. government budget to weather-disaster damages could reach $7 trillion.
Durbin said federal funding for disaster relief has been typically provided only as needed, rather than as regular budget projections. So weather disasters have been a budget disaster too, he said.
"In years with catastrophic events, we are left scrambling to fund relief programs," he said. "If we hope to put this country on a sustainable fiscal path, we need to be prepared to manage this increase in natural catastrophes."
Congress has asked the Government Accountability Office to determine how federal, state and local authorities are adapting to climate change. But David Trimble, Director for Natural Resources and Environment at the GAO, told Reuters that environmental regulations addressing climate change have fallen victim to political pressure in the current budget debate.
"I think it's more your sort of pressing needs today versus tomorrow, the 'my roof's not raining now' idea," he said.
"This is a difficult, complex issue that involves pretty much every aspect of the government," he said. "To tackle it we need greater clarity about where the money we are spending on climate change is going, and on our national priorities." moreAnd then there is the problem of the "new normal." Last summer, wildfires in Russia were so severe there were probably folks who thought it was a sign of the end of the world. No one had ever seen anything like it before. Well guess what folks, the wildfire are making a return appearance this summer.
Fears of 2010 wildfires returning to Moscow
Published: 28 July, 2011, 09:54
(RIA Novosti / Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)
As the mercury heads for 40 degrees Celsius in Moscow, memories of last summer's smoke-covered city loom large. The extreme heat-wave has already caused an outbreak of wildfires.
A whiff of a smoke – and Moscow is in panic again. The toxic cocktail of peat smoke, wood smoke and exhaust fumes that filled the capital last August is still vivid in people’s memories. Intense peat bog fires and the record heat-wave were blamed for the dense smog that sent pollution levels soaring tenfold and were thought to have contributed to tens of thousands of deaths in the capital. The authorities swore they would be prepared this year.
In 2010, doctors said breathing in the smog that covered the city was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes every hour. Now, the question on everyone’s mind is whether the miserable smog is back again.
Peat bogs may look harmless, with just tiny flames on the surface, but in fact every square meter requires a tonne of water to extinguish the fire burning deep underground.
“A tiny smoldering piece beneath the surface may undermine all our work,” says Grigory Kuksin, head of the fire information service at Greenpeace.
The authorities insist the situation is under control and most of the fires in the Moscow Region have been successfully extinguished. However, campaigners say officials are under-reporting the extent of the problem, both around Moscow and across the country.
“The situation is made even worse by the bureaucrats who, instead of reacting swiftly, spend all their time concealing the information about fires and thus making it more difficult to get to them in time,” Kuksin continued.
Campaigners say part of the problem is that the forests are being mistreated. They say more needs to be done to prevent fires by better management. With summer at its peak, remnants of campfires are all across the forest, despite the ban introduced a month ago. And there is not much volunteers can do.
The record-breaking heat of summer 2010 resulted in devastating forest fires that killed 62 people, destroyed 199 towns and reduced 3,200 houses to ashes.
“The fire was literally coming towards us,” a villager tells RT. “We could hear the trees crackling as they were burning, and then whoosh – the wind blew it the other way.”
This year, most of the country is again sweltering and the fires are raging once more. Large areas of forest have already been destroyed in Russia’s Far East, while parts of the north are already choking on smog. And with August still to come, Russians from the capital to the countryside hope the summer sun will not be as deadly this time. more