Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

Climate Case Study: California Drought (1)

By: RickyRood, 10:58 PM GMT on August 22, 2014

Climate Case Study: California Drought (1)


Avoiding Beardogs

Thank you for the responses about online courses from the last blog. In addition to the blog comments, I got some emails. I welcome more comments and emails.

Some years ago I went to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Western Nebraska. There are amazing fossil sites all over the Great Plains, from dinosaurs to mammoths. Though we never see the two together. Wonder why?

Sticking to the subject, as in many of the National Park Service’s (NPS) facilities, there is educational material. Large mammals dominate the fossils at Agate Fossil Beds. There is a stunning heap of bones collected in a steep-sided pit that was once water, then mud and then large bones. I am personally a fan of the beardog. The evidence is that persistent drought led to drying of the surface sources of water. Eventually, all that was left were the deeper pools of water. The migrating animals collected at the pools. The large carnivores found easy hunting and were, surely, in carnivore euphoria for a while. All kept chasing the water, getting stuck in the mud, falling and piling on top of each other. This all happened about 20 million years ago. (Some NPS links: One, Two)

In July of 2012, I wrote one of my more widely distributed blogs, Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature. In that blog, I argued that humans were part of nature; however, because of our ability to remember, to reason, to develop and to accumulate knowledge, we have the ability to make decisions that influence the future of our environment. Therefore, our role in nature, in the natural world, is unique. That uniqueness is not in our ability to change the environment, but in our ability to understand the consequences of those changes and the ability to anticipate and influence the future.

So California. There are millions of people and highly productive farms. California has a large enough economy that is often heralded as important on national and world stages. The precipitation in California occurs mostly in different parts of the state than where the people live. The rain and snow that occurs in the Sierra Nevada are of special importance. This water feeds the rivers and fills the reservoir. The seasonal melting of the water stored in snowpack and small glaciers provides water for the rivers and reservoirs during summer, when the normal amount of rainfall is very small. California is especially fortunate that the water in the Sierra Nevada is mostly in the state, which eliminates the need to negotiate with other states over water.

In addition to the water that falls in the state, California has claim to a large fraction of the water in the Colorado River watershed. The Colorado River starts in north central Colorado, runs through several states, and as far as geography goes, it is the eastern border of California in its most southern part. All of the other states in the Colorado River Basin rely on their fractions of the Colorado River water. (Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study)

There are two points that I want to make here. First, water in California is strongly influenced by agreements that are codified in policy, law and regulations. Second, water availability is dependent on water management, which relies on engineered systems of dams, ditches, canals and aqueducts. For the people and the farms in California, the weather and climate that matter are at a distance.

I, also, want to make a little summary here, California has it all. There is high population; there is economic success; there is need for energy. These are three elements of our existence that are entangled with climate, and therefore, climate change. Then, on a more concrete level, California’s relationship with climate relies on human agreements and human engineering.

As all readers of this blog know, the entire state of California is in the midst of some measure of dryness. The majority of the area and vast majority of the people are in exceptional drought. Exceptional drought is the most extreme category of drought in the classification used by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Exceptional drought is defined as, “Exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams and wells creating water emergencies.”

Figure 1: Screen shot of U.S. Drought Monitor, California. This is the August 19, 2014 release.

There are many news stories about the ongoing drought in California and the impacts on farms, cities and forests. One that caught my eye was in the LA Times, entitled Drought Yields Only Desperation. The article is by Diana Marcum, and she has many articles reported from the ground in the Central Valley. This well-written article is a narrative about field workers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. From a climate perspective, the narrative shows the vulnerability of people at many economic levels, through many businesses and professions. This part of the Central Valley, which includes Fresno and Stockton, was badly hit by the recession in the past five years. This demonstrates the connection between climate and economy, with climate stress and economic stress becoming amplifiers of each other. The human cost increases.

There is another place from which California gets water in significant amounts – under the ground. The number of reports on ground water pumping is growing. In the News section of National Geographic.com there have been ongoing articles. If You Think the Water Crisis Can't Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained, posted on August 19, 2014, maintains that many aquifers are being depleted in an unsustainable way. The drought in California and the West, more generally, has accelerated the pumping. From a Californian point of view, the aquifers in California and in the Colorado River Basin are both being depleted. The numbers being reported are that, in the drought, 60% of California’s water comes from the ground, which is up from about 30% during less stressed times. This is more or less a doubling of pumping of water, depending on whether or not total water use is increasing or decreasing. Many of the cities in the Central Valley rely completely on ground water. Water levels in the aquifers are dropping 100s of feet. There is a queue waiting to drill new wells.

The point of the National Geographic News article and the more complete Understanding California’s Groundwater from Stanford’s Water in the West Project is that ground water is out of sight and out of mind. Even worse, ground water is unregulated and quantitative information about drilling is private. This brings a problem that is related to climate and climate change back to policy, law and regulation- human agreements that are in conflict with coping with weather and climate stress.

I will conclude this entry by connecting some points I introduced at the beginning. First, the distribution of people and precipitation assures that for many in California the surface water from rivers and lakes is, like the ground water, out of sight and out of mind. When we commoditize a resource or anonymize people, we lose contact and context. This is perilous, and increases the barriers to taking substantive actions.

Second, the price of water in California is, presently, high. Those who have functioning wells are motivated by price to pump more. I can’t help but think of the carnivores finding the easy pickings of the herds collected around the drying water holes at what would become the Agate Fossil Beds. Then, from that, we humans are unique because of our ability to remember, to reason, to develop and to accumulate knowledge; we have the ability to make decisions that influence the future of our environment. We don’t have to be beardogs.

In the next entry, I will synthesize some of the recent scientific papers that have gotten a lot of attention.


Figure 2: Beardog from Prehistoric Animals Blogspot

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Climate Change, Engineering, Stationarity and Applied Climate

By: RickyRood, 8:33 PM GMT on August 14, 2014

Climate Change, Engineering, Stationarity and Applied Climate


Something New, Something Fantastic

Some years ago there was a Brevity comic strip with a man, John, standing at the supermarket checkout. The caption was, “Suddenly John realized he didn't want paper or plastic. He wanted something new… something fantastic.” You can see it here.

I try in my WU blog to find a niche that is different from other climate and climate-change blogs. I imagine that I synthesize information, and I introduce how climate change fits into the proverbial big picture. The blog started after I had been teaching for a while, and both the blog and my class on climate-change problem solving have evolved over the past 8 years. My research has evolved as well, focusing more and more on the usability of climate knowledge in planning and management – whatever that means. All together, what I do has evolved, and this semester at University of Michigan I am taking on a new role to grow a Masters of Engineering in Applied Climate. This notion has been in a slow yeasty ferment for a few years. It is something new. Hope it will turn into something fantastic.

I have the intention of putting more material online, or in many cases better organizing the material that I have online. My experience, so far, is that massively open online courses (MOOCs) are not so effective in the sort of material and context that I want to teach. I have noticed in the blog comments that some of you have flirted with or taken online courses. I’d be very interested in learning about your experience, and perhaps, even, something of a review.

For the past few weeks I have been preparing for the applied climate venture. One of my goals is to connect our knowledge of climate change with engineering design. Our response to climate change will often be expressed in engineering. Some engineering projects will be direct interventions, perhaps in the spirit of the Thames River Barrier. Other examples of engineering will be in energy systems, water management, roads and seaports. Then there will be pervasive changes in construction materials, codes, standards and practices.

During 2011 and 2012, I was the member of the External Advisory Board of The Partnership for Education on Climate Change, Engineered Systems and Society. This was a research effort of the US National Academy of Engineering. The goal of this effort was to transform engineering education to prepare current and future engineers, policymakers and the public to meet the challenges of climate change. Deliberations of the Advisory Board included the need to better frame climate-change science so that it could be integrated into design and engineering and specifically, how to incorporate changing weather patterns into engineering. In a number of other meetings of engineers, I have carried the banner of climate change. A repeated theme is how to use the knowledge of climate change in, for example, designing water and transportation infrastructure. (By coincidence … National Academy of Engineering just sent out an email on August 15 with two videos from this effort: Climate Change and Infrastructure I: Why does it matter? and Climate Change and Infrastructure II: Who Should Address it?)

A major challenge is how to include non-stationarity into design. I have written a couple of blogs about non-stationarity. In this case, non-stationarity really means that the weather in the future will not have the same characteristics as the weather of the past. I wrote about this from the point of view of farming in this entry and, more recently, with a sea level rise perspective. This week, the weather has offered us an excellent case study in stationarity. Flooding.

As documented in the 2014 National Climate Assessment, in the US Midwest, including the Great Lakes, since 1958 the amount of precipitation occurring in very heavy events (top 1%) has increased by 37%. In the Northeast, the increase has been more than 70%. Even in the drought-stricken Southwest, there has been a 5% increase in extremely heavy rain events. This is an observed trend. Such changes are consistent with the guidance provided by climate models, as well as with the foundational principles from thermodynamics. This convergence of observations, theory and projections provide confidence that we have usable information.

In Southeast Michigan on August 11-12, 2014 a storm surprised Detroit with more than 4 inches of rain and regional flooding. I say surprised because the storm caused far more rain than forecast. On August 13, 2014, the Northeast Regional Climate Center reported a more than 13 inch rainfall total on Long Island, a greater that a 200-year event – a rainfall amount normally associated with tropical storms and hurricanes.

I have referred to the 2012 flood in Duluth, Minnesota a number of times. The magnitude of that flood defied historical precedence, and was classified as greater than a 500-year event. Researching this blog, I am reminded of floods, again, in Minnesota in 2014. In many parts of Minnesota, 2014 is tracking to be the wettest year on record.

These floods have overwhelmed drainage systems, leading to destruction of many roads, structural damage and loss of life. In rural areas, the floods are challenging planting. They have become so regular that new farm machinery is being purchased to accommodate spring floods. The damage caused by these weather events reveals existing vulnerabilities. They compel the need to plan for events that have, previously, occurred less frequently than once a century occurring on the order of decades.

Marshall Shepherd is hosting a new Weather Channel show called WXGeeks. He has a WU blog on recent urban floods. He writes a simple equation

Urban Flooding =
Increase in intensity of top 1% rain events
+ expanding urban impervious land cover
+ storm water management engineered for rainstorms of "last century"

This equation shows both the role of climate change and how humans change the surface. What becomes obvious is the role of engineering both in solving the problem as well as potentially exacerbating the problem. (Rood’s old blog on Balancing the Budget, Water Resource Foundation on Infrastructure)

I close with a blog from the American Society of Civil Engineers, entitled, Bridging the Gap between Climate Change Science and Civil Engineering Practice. In the piece Richard Wright states that the Society is writing a white paper on climate change with the purpose of

Foster understanding and transparency of analytical methods necessary to update and describe climate, weather and extreme events for planning and engineering design of the built and natural environments.

Identify (and evaluate) methods to assess impacts and vulnerabilities caused by changing climate conditions on the built and natural environments.

Promote development and communication of best practices for addressing uncertainties associated with changing conditions, including climate, weather, extreme environments and the nature and extent of the built and natural environments, in civil engineering practice.

Will be working to make those things happen sooner rather than later,


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Tracking El Niño: Summertime Update

By: RickyRood, 10:49 PM GMT on August 01, 2014

Tracking El Niño: Summertime Update

Back in May 2014, I wrote a couple of blogs about El Niño predictions for this year (Tracking El Niño and Underlying Models). For those who need it, there are links to basic information such as definitions of terms in those blogs. This entry is an update.

One quote I want to bring forward from the May 20, 2014 entry, “Note, none of these centers are predicting, yet, strong, super or monster. I’m not as smart as those others [predicting the super and the monster], so right now I am steering away from “monster,” and looking forward to what we learn about prediction, the climate as a whole and, of course, how we communicate our science.”

I had three reasons to avoid going along with the “super” and the “monster.” First, reading the dispassionate words of several forecast centers, there was little suggestion of an extraordinarily strong event. Second, it’s usually not wise to predict extraordinary extremes without a lot of evidence, because extremes are rare. Finally, as was the case in my cranky response to the return of the polar vortex, the increasing exaggeration and personification of weather events and their implications for climate change are distinctly negative contributions. Of course, it probably costs me readers.

I’m not very good with search engines and analytics, so forgive my shortcomings in actually providing meaningful numbers. I used the Search Tools in Google and looked at the last three months. I’m just going to take a few titles and links from the first page of the results.

May 2014:

El Niño is coming: Epic event ahead? - The Weather Network

We Are heading for the Most Powerful Super El Niño Event

Are We Heading for a Worrying Super El Niño?

Real Climate: El Niño or Bust (thank goodness)

June 2014:

Odds Against Formation of a 'Super El Niño,' Experts Say

Looks like yet another false alarm. Probably no super monster El Niño coming this year

El Niño 2014: Early strength fades

Warmist Year Of Disappointment? Likelihood Of “Super El Niño” Rapidly Fading…Arctic Set For Impressive Rebound

July 2014:

El Niño plays coy with forecasters in 2014

While a 'super' El Niño looks to be off the table, what does develop this year might not deliver what many Canadians are hoping for

The 2014 El Niño is looking more and more like a bust

What’s the three month arc there? From super and monster to yet another false alarm and bust. What was the evidentiary information for super and monster as adjectives back in May? How did super and monster enter into and flash to the top of headlines? Worth studying and thinking about.

In my entry from May 29, 2014 I wrote, “even a moderate El Niño this year is likely to lead to the hottest year on record.” My rationale for this statement is that we are living in the hottest decade since we have had easily defended direct temperature measurements. We have remained warm, globally, despite relatively cool temperatures in the eastern Pacific. Given the importance of the eastern Pacific to the global picture, even a small break in the cool pattern is likely to lead to globally historic highs. Though too early to declare 2014 as warmest, as summarized in Jeff Master’s July 24, 2014 entry, June 2014 was the warmest June since modern temperature records began in 1880, May 2014 the warmest May, April 2014 the warmest April.

OK what’s happening with El Niño? I want to trace this through the prediction centers and the last three months. Also it’s an exercise in the organization and usability of web-based information.

From the Climate Prediction Center

May 8, 2014, Diagnostic Discussion (and my blog)

“Chance of El Niño increases during the remainder of the year, exceeding 65% during summer.”

June 5, 2014, Diagnostic Discussion

“The chance of El Niño is 70% during the Northern Hemisphere summer and reaches 80% during the fall and winter.”

July 10, 2014, Diagnostic Discussion

“The chance of El Niño is about 70% during the Northern Hemisphere summer and is close to 80% during the fall and early winter.”

July 28, 2014 (Update)

“ENSO-neutral conditions continue. // Sea surface temperatures (SST) are above-average in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. // Tropical rainfall is slightly enhanced over Indonesia and in the western equatorial Pacific. // Chance of El Niño is about 70% during the Northern Hemisphere summer and is close to 80% during the fall and winter.”

From the Japanese Meteorological Agency

May, 2014, El Niño Outlook (from my blog, can’t find archive on JMA page)

“It is likely that El Niño conditions will develop during the northern hemisphere summer and will continue to autumn.”

July 10, 2014, El Niño Outlook

“El Niño conditions did not form in June, though the NINO.3 SST deviation from normal increased from May to June. // The possibility of development of El Niño conditions in this summer is lower than previous forecasts. // It is likely that El Niño conditions will develop during the northern hemisphere autumn.”

From the Australian Bureau of Meteorology

May 6, 2014, ENSO Wrap-Up (and my blog)
“Climate models surveyed by the Bureau suggest El Niño development is possible as early as July. These factors indicate that while El Niño in 2014 cannot be guaranteed, the likelihood of an event developing remains at least 70% and we are at El Niño ALERT level.”

June 3 2014, ENSO Wrap-Up

“The tropical Pacific Ocean remains on track for El Niño in 2014, with just over half of the climate models surveyed by the Bureau suggesting El Niño will become established by August. An El Niño ALERT remains in place, indicating at least a 70% chance of an El Niño developing in 2014.”

July 1, 2014, ENSO Wrap-Up

“While the tropical Pacific Ocean surface temperature is currently at levels typically El Niño ALERT associated with a weak El Niño, waters below the surface have cooled and atmospheric patterns continue to remain neutral.

However, over the past fortnight changes have occurred in the atmosphere that may be a response to the warm surface waters–the Southern Oscillation Index has dropped by over 10 points, and weakened trade winds have re-appeared.

These changes would need to persist for several weeks in order for an El Niño to be considered established, and it remains possible they are simply related to shorter term weather variability.

Climate models surveyed by the Bureau continue to indicate that El Niño is likely to develop by spring 2014. The Bureau's ENSO Tracker remains at El Niño ALERT, indicating at least a 70% chance of El Niño developing in 2014.”

July 29, 2014, ENSO Wrap-Up

“Despite the tropical Pacific Ocean being primed for an El Niño during much of the first half of 2014, the atmosphere above has largely failed to respond, and hence the ocean and atmosphere have not reinforced each other. As a result, some cooling has now taken place in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, with most of the key NINO regions returning to neutral values.

While the chance of an El Niño in 2014 has clearly eased, warmer-than-average waters persist in parts of the tropical Pacific, and the (slight) majority of climate models suggest El Niño remains likely for spring. Hence the establishment of El Niño before year's end cannot be ruled out. If an El Niño were to occur, it is increasingly unlikely to be a strong event.”

From the International Research Institute,

2014 May Quick Look (and my blog)

“During April through mid-May the observed ENSO conditions moved from warm-neutral to the borderline of a weak El Niño condition. Most of the ENSO prediction models indicate a continued warming trend, with a transition to sustained El Niño conditions by the early northern summer.”

2014 June Quick Look

“During May through mid-June the observed ENSO conditions remained near the borderline of a weak El Niño condition in the ocean, but the atmosphere so far has shown little involvement. Most of the ENSO prediction models indicate more warming coming in the months ahead, leading to sustained El Niño conditions by the middle of northern summer.”

2014 July Quick Look (There are some confused links on IRI page, that I will need to fix in the future.)

“During June through early-July the observed ENSO conditions remained near the borderline of a weak El Niño condition in the ocean, but the atmosphere so far has shown little involvement. Most of the ENSO prediction models indicate more warming coming in the months ahead, leading to sustained El Niño conditions by the middle or late portion of northern summer.”

Returning here to some of the details in the Climate Prediction Center’s Diagnostic Discussion.

“Over the last month, no significant change was evident in the model forecasts of ENSO, with the majority of models indicating El Niño onset within June-August and continuing into early 2015. The chance of a strong El Niño is not favored in any of the ensemble averages for Niño-3.4. At this time, the forecasters anticipate El Niño will peak at weak-to-moderate strength during the late fall and early winter (3-month values of the Niño-3.4 index between 0.5oC and 1.4oC). The chance of El Niño is about 70% during the Northern Hemisphere summer and is close to 80% during the fall and early winter.”

Analysis at the end of a blog

The forecast summaries from these four centers are consistent in the sense that none of them are calling for a strong El Niño, much less a super or monster El Niño. It is also true, that the forecast centers summaries NEVER called for a strong El Niño in their public releases of information.

All of the centers are maintaining that it is more likely than not that the criteria for an El Niño will be met. The onset, originally predicted for the middle of northern hemisphere summer, keeps moving into the future. The strength of predicted El Niño is projected to be from weak to moderate.

Looking at the press and blogs reports, I would be interested to see in the blog comments how people think “super” and “monster” entered into the discussion. There is a burst of the adjectives in the press and blogs in May, followed quite quickly in June by people distancing themselves from the extreme description. Accompanying this distancing is the growth of commentary in the press and blogs about exaggerated claims and failed models. I point out explicitly, there is no language of exaggeration in the summaries from the prediction centers, which should be viewed as the basic knowledge-based information. Therefore, there is no foundation to say these models have failed in any fundamental sense.

Looking more deeply at the discussions that are only summarized above, the models originally anticipated an atmospheric response to the changes in the sea surface temperature. These responses are not being realized, which is summarized a couple of places above as “atmosphere so far has shown little involvement.” This does, to perhaps only me, raise the question about the state of the atmosphere going into the beginning of the El Niño event. As noted in my previous blogs, there are a couple of documented and persistent extremes, the changes in the Arctic and the very strong trade winds in the eastern Pacific. This brings me back to my conjecture “From the point of view of predicting El Niño, during this prediction cycle we have levels of sea ice that are far lower than in previous El Niño cycles. This changes the heat exchange between the atmosphere and ocean in the Arctic. This is outside of the range of previous variability, which intrinsically increases the uncertainty in the forecast.” Might be a good idea for a proposal.

I close with a mention of NOAA’s ENSO Blog. Michelle L’Heureux wrote an entry on July 25, 2014 entitled What’s the hold up, El Niño? Michelle L’Heureux also wrote Real Climate: El Niño or Bust, where I put the “thank goodness” above. Perhaps that’s the name to look for El Niño news this summer.


I like the effort from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology to summarize the criteria for El Niño and La Niña watches, alerts and existence, in addition to the neutral phase.

Figure 1: ENSO Tracker indicating an El Niño WATCH (left) and El Niño ALERT (right). Far more details from Australian Bureau of Meteorology. In the July 29, 2014 update, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology shifted from Alert to Watch

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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