Putting the life back in science fiction

The Doom of California (?)
April 27, 2018, 12:51 am
Filed under: California, climate change, futurism, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Since Weather West’s latest blog post and paper in Nature Climate Change got a lot of media attention, why not feed him even more links?  Anyway, the blog post is cool, the NCC paper is paywalled and I haven’t gotten around to asking him (Daniel Swain, the genius behind Weather West) for a copy yet.  And I figured I’d get back to talking about climate change for a post or two.

Last month, I went to a climate summit in San Diego, wherein they talked about some really cool research that should be published this summer.  I’ll link to it when it comes out, but it doesn’t really contradict what’s in Weather West.  Or in my previous series on California in the High Altithermal, really.  This simply appears to be a case of the future getting here a little sooner than I’d anticipated, is all.

The basic points about the weather are what I first heard from John Holdren back when I was an undergrad in the 1980s: the problem with climate change is that the extremes get more extreme.  What Swain’s doing is kind of cool: he’s using the latest generation of climate models to look not just at averages, but at the extremes.  And therein hangs a tale.  Or at least a couple of anecdotes strung together.

Here’s a quick backgrounder on how climate models work: they chop the globe into “cubes” of atmosphere, ocean, land, etc, and these cubes are a certain dimension on a side.  They then calculate the fluxes inside the cube as if it were uniform, calculate the fluxes between adjacent cubes, and iterate over, and over, and over again.  The simplest of these models are what Arrhenius penciled out in 1896 when he figured out how CO2 was warming the atmosphere, or what I had to do on paper in 1989, when Holdren and John Harte taught me using their text Consider a Spherical Cow.  The class was about getting ballpark answers through the fine art of simplifying and estimating, so we had to figure out things like the surface temperature of “the Earth” from “the light hitting at the top of the atmosphere,” and similar one-dimensional modeling that can be done on paper.  Turning it three dimensional quickly requires a computer.  As any computer geek knows, when you’ve got a raster, halving the size of the basic cubical unit at least quadruples the amount of processor needed, which is why global climate models run on super computers.

One of the things some climatologists do is that they take the outputs of some of these big cubes (which, if I understand right, are still on order of 50-100 km on a side) and interpolate inside them to figure out microclimatic effects.  The fluxes into and out of the square are what the global model dictates, but these are treated as simply inputs to a smaller and more finely detailed grid.  A lot of climate change planning is based on the work of a few researchers doing this kind of interpolation for California and the US west.  I’m not sure, but I think this is what Swain’s doing.

Anyway, at the March climate summit, I got a quick lesson in where the models are, when I asked about how climate change would affect things like the hours of chilling fruit trees need to blossom and set fruit.  According to the senior climatologist on the podium, that information wasn’t quite possible with this generation of models.  They currently can look at seasonal trends within a year (possibly down to a month), but the current generation of models are too coarsely grained to figure out daily temperatures.  Since chilling depends on how many hours the plant is below a certain temperature, it’s too fine a signal to model yet.  Wait for the next generation of models, though…

To unpack that interchange a bit more, what I was getting at were that plants don’t just respond to averages, they need cues (like chilling hours) to initiate “behaviors” like flowering and fruiting, so models of mean monthly temperature are crude indices of where they could live in a future world.  However, we might see forecasts that sophisticated in a short time, particularly if it turns out that machine learning can predict the future states of chaotic systems, and this can be linked to climate modeling…

That’s kind of scary, actually.  I keep forgetting that we’re still living with Moore’s Law.

Another thing I picked up at the climate summit was an answer about the nature and future of Hadley Cells.  Yes, go read that link if you don’t know what they are: basically they help determine where subtropical deserts like the Sahara or for us, the Sonora, are.  As the Earth heats up, they should get bigger, right?  Well,  it’s more complicated than that.

Awhile ago I’d read in Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1 that the Mediterranean was on the edge of the Saharan part of the Hadley Cell (duh) but what that meant was that it had dry, warm subtropical summers, but then it had cold, wet temperate zone winters, because, since the Earth’s axis is tilted, the edge of the Hadley Zone slides north and south over the course of a year.  I’d discounted this idea, because Braudel’s a historian and his book (which is well worth reading) was written in 1949.  Turns out he was right.

The climatologists said a couple of things about the future of the Hadley Cell.  One is that the edge is expanding north, so southern California will get more Sonoran in coming decades.  However, as it heads north, because the Earth is distributing hot dry air over a bigger area, the effect of the Hadley Cell should weaken somewhat, even as things get on average warmer.  In other words, we won’t see quite as much desertification as we might expect.  However, the big problem, as we saw with the December 2017 Thomas, Tubbs, Lilac, etc. fires, is that the “shoulders of the Hadley Cell” will get bigger, meaning that the transition from summer desert to winter temperate willtake bigger and bigger bites out of winter.  While Santa Anas in December are normal, it was also normal to have rains around Thanksgiving.  With the vegetation wet, December Santa Anas didn’t matter.  However, with the edge of the Hadley Cell keeping winter storms north of us, we should be ready for nasty, Santa Ana wind-driven fires to continue into what used to be the wet season, while the wet season will get shorter, but not necessarily drier, except when it is drier.

With all that as prologue, let’s get back to the Weather West post.  All this is in there, by the way, but I just wanted to point out that Swain and company really seem to be part of the climatology establishment, not mavericks.  His blog post title, “Increasing precipitation whiplash in twenty-first century California” kind of says it all, while the first image gives the salient details:

What Swain et al.’s models seem to be saying is that average precipitation–averaged over decades and over the entire state–won’t change much, but extremes will get more extreme.  Southern California, land of the Hadley Zone, will experience more extreme dry years (as will more temperate Northern California to a lesser extent), both will experience more extreme wet years (remembering that extremely wet means different things in northern than in southern California), more whiplash dry to wet years (like what happened 2016, 2017, and 2018), and worst of all, more ARKStorms like the Great Flood of 1862, which are forecast to go from one every 200 years to one every 40 years.

This is “the doom” (perhaps Teh Doom?) of California, at least in my lifetime.  With Swain et al., we get a prediction of an ARKstorm putting ten feet of water or more in the Sacramento Valley if the dams don’t hold (looking at you, Oroville Dam) and, dams or not,  flooding everywhere from Oregon down into Baja, with a monster storm like this likely in my lifetime or the next 40 years, whichever ends last.  Then there’s newscasts helpfully telling us to expect “The Big One” earthquake in the next 30 years, probability 99.7%, whatever that means (does earthquake distribution really follow a normal curve?).

Of course, probability is not certainty, but if you want to predict the biggest dangers to California’s current prosperity, it’s these two predictions.Since the damage from the ARKStorm is modeled to be even greater than the damage from the Big One, both occurring in the next few decades may well put the kibosh on California’s current “eternal” growth.  It might be nice if they happened sooner, rather than later when I’m too old to deal with that crap and we have all this nice shiny money lying around to build a nice sustainable infrastructure out of the rubble, but that would be borrowing trouble, wouldn’t it?

Still, this is why I follow Weather West, so give him props where they’re due.

Any questions?


6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

You can download the NCC paper easily with sci-hub. I did that for later reading.

I suppose the bottom line for me is maintaining my flood insurance – just in case.

More seriously, these more subtle ecological effects that disrupt growth, feeding, etc. are going to have very visible effects even before the climate and weather changes so much that people will say “I remember when…” And that is before our impact due to habitat destruction and use of pesticides and herbicides.

Maybe this is our “Great Oxidation Event” that will remove humans and most life from the Earth and be replaced with artificial machine organisms.

Comment by Alex Tolley

I’m not sure it’s our Great Oxidation Event, because that “event” took over a billion years…Actually, it might be, come to think of it.

Comment by Heteromeles

Heh. I took a class from Holdren in the early ’90’s.

Comment by onthepublicrecord

“I didn’t leave California, California left me”… it washed out to sea.

I’m looking at the various insurance company failures and the reinsurance issues around the world, and wondering how insurable a lot of California is. Or will be after the first major flood.

Much of NZ is no longer insurable against earthquakes, for example, without government underwriting (which is another circular financial firing squad, without insurance no-one can get a mortgage, with wholesale mortgage withdrawal/call-in comes a collapse in the property market, causing widespread banking collapse… the government does not want that any more than we do).

Insofar as the economy is a measure of underlying productive capacity, major upsets in the economy might once again start stemming from upsets in the physical world rather than in “business confidence” as the GFC was.

But underlying that is: can we rebuild? Not financially, but physically. Does the US actually have the capacity to replace even 50% of the buildings in California every decade? While also moving Florida inland, and flood-proofing New York etc. Viz, at what point have too many things gone wrong all at the same time.

If the forests burn, not just the wild ones but the plantations, where does the timber for replacement houses come from? Etc.

Comment by Moz of Yarramulla

“Does the US actually have the capacity to replace even 50% of the buildings in California every decade?”

Good question. I don’t think “every decade” is likely, but major infrastructure repair is not likely. Look how long it took just to replace a span of the Bay Bridge. In practice, insurance companies will likely be bankrupted by mass policy claims beyond their ability to pay, collapsing the financial system. This is before the issue of housing millions of people. The Napa Valley fire showed the difficulty of housing people in just a small local area. Across the state, this problem will be magnified.

If FEMA is involved, the damage extent is not fixable by that organization’s ability to handle the crisis. The Katrina disaster shows that, and CA would be orders of magnitude greater, and potentially a permanent crisis that would make Floridian hurricane dama look like a kindergarten party.

Comment by Alex Tolley

“Does the US actually have the capacity to replace even 50% of the buildings in California every decade?”

We’ll replace stuff once, with 2-3 story cement parking garages under most buildings, with an “infrastructure story” (AC, phone and electrical rooms, etc.) immediately above the parking garages. Houses will be a little trickier. Maybe cinder-blocks with infrastructure in the attic?

Comment by Troutwaxer

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