Spring Outlook: Historic, Widespread Flooding to Continue Through May
Nearly two-thirds of the Lower 48 states face an elevated risk for flooding through May, with the potential for major or moderate flooding in 25 states, according to NOAA’s U.S. Spring Outlook issued March 21. The majority of the country is expecting to experience above-average precipitation this spring, increasing the flood risk.
The prediction is a blow, given that it comes as damage estimates continue to mount after major flooding last month in a large part of the Farm Belt. A “bomb cyclone” dumped an unprecedented amount of snow and rain, massively flooding the Missouri River and upper Mississippi River basins, leaving fields under water and irrigation systems devastated. The seams of hundreds, if not thousands, of steel-built soybean and corn storage bins have been split from the expansion of the water-soaked crops they hold. Roads were destroyed, rail lines taken out, and river locks and dams were shut down, making the transportation of soybeans and corn that did survive nearly impossible. Livestock producers lost thousands of animals succumbing to floodwaters.
In one sector, at least 13 percent of the 1.06-million-gallons-per-day U.S. ethanol production capacity has reportedly been shut down.
A state of emergency has been declared in at least four states – Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin – and damages as of late last month were estimated in Iowa and Nebraska alone at well in excess of $3 billion. Hundreds of farming operations were are risk of being forced out of business, officials say.
The early flooding was caused by rapid snow melt combined with heavy spring rain and late season snowfall in areas where soil moisture is high. In some areas, ice jams exacerbated the flooding.
Offices across the National Weather Service have been working with local communities, providing decision-support services and special briefings to emergency managers and other leaders in local, state and federal government to ensure the highest level of readiness before the flooding began.
Additional spring rain and melting snow will prolong and expand flooding, especially in the central and southern United States. As this excess water flows downstream through the river basins, the flood threat will become worse and geographically more widespread.
“This outlook will help emergency managers and community decision-makers all along the nation’s major waterways prepare people and businesses for the flood threat,” said Neil Jacobs, Ph.D., NOAA’s acting administrator. “In addition to the safety aspects, our rivers are critical to the economic vitality of the nation, supporting commerce, recreation and transportation. NOAA forecasts and outlooks help people navigate extreme seasonal weather and water events to keep the country safe and moving forward.”
Record winter precipitation across a large swath of the country has set the stage for the elevated flood risk. The upper Mississippi and Red River of the North basins have received rain and snow this spring up to 200 percent above normal.
The areas of greatest risk for moderate to major flooding include the upper, middle, and lower Mississippi River basins including the mainstem Mississippi River, Red River of the North, the Great Lakes, eastern Missouri River, lower Ohio, lower Cumberland, and Tennessee River basins.
Additionally, much of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River and portions of California and Nevada are at risk for minor flooding.
“The extensive flooding we’ve seen in the past two weeks will continue through May and become more dire and may be exacerbated in the coming weeks as the water flows downstream,” said Ed Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “This is shaping up to be a potentially unprecedented flood season, with more than 200 million people at risk for flooding in their communities.”
The flood risk outlook is based on a number of factors, including current conditions of snowpack, drought, soil moisture, frost depth, streamflow and precipitation. Local heavy rainfall, especially associated with thunderstorms, can occur throughout the spring and lead to flooding even in areas where overall risk is considered low. In the western U.S., snowpacks at higher elevations may continue to build over the next month, and the flood risk will depend on future precipitation and temperatures.
Above-average rain and snow in California this winter has pulled the entire state out of its seven-year drought. Scattered areas of the Southwest, Southeast and Pacific Northwest are abnormally dry, but the worst drought conditions in the U.S. are in northern New Mexico. Springtime rain and melting of deep snowpack are favored to slightly improve the drought there. Drought will persist through spring in southern Alaska and Oregon, and may develop in Hawaii.
Above-average precipitation is favored from the Central Great Basin to the East Coast and in Alaska, compounding the flood risk for many states, especially in the Central and Northern Rockies and in the Southeast.
Warmer-than-average temperatures are forecast to extend from the Pacific Northwest to the Central Rockies, and from southern Texas, northward through the Great Lakes and eastward to encompass the entire East Coast. The greatest chance for above-average temperatures exist in Alaska, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. The interior of the U.S. from the Dakotas southward to northern Texas are favored to have below-average temperatures this spring.
“Severe weather and flooding can strike anywhere, whether or not you are in a high risk area,” said Daniel Kwasniewski, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The agency offers a website, floodsmart.gov, for property owners to determine whether they have the right coverage for a flood. FEMA also offers a mobile app, which provides real-time weather alerts for local areas.
State of the Climate in 2018 Shows Accelerating Climate Change Impacts
The physical signs and socio-economic impacts of climate change are accelerating as record greenhouse gas concentrations drive global temperatures towards increasingly dangerous levels, according to a new report from the World Meteorological Organization.
The WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2018, its 25th anniversary edition, highlights record sea level rise, as well as exceptionally high land and ocean temperatures over the past four years. This warming trend has lasted since the start of this century and is expected to continue.
“Since the statement was first published, climate science has achieved an unprecedented degree of robustness, providing authoritative evidence of global temperature increase and associated features such as accelerating sea level rise, shrinking sea ice, glacier retreat and extreme events such as heat waves,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
The key climate change indicators cited by Taalas are becoming more pronounced. Carbon dioxide levels, which were at 357.0 parts per million when the statement was first published in 1994, keep rising – to 405.5 parts per million in 2017. For 2018 and 2019, greenhouse gas concentrations are expected to increase further.
The WMO climate statement includes input from national meteorological and hydrological services, an extensive community of scientific experts, and United Nations agencies. It details climate related risks and impacts on human health and welfare, migration and displacement, food security, the environment and ocean and land-based ecosystems. It also catalogues extreme weather around the world.
“Extreme weather has continued in the early 2019, most recently with Tropical Cyclone Idai, which caused devastating floods and tragic loss of life in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. It may turn out to be one of the deadliest weather-related disasters to hit the southern hemisphere,” said Taalas.
“Idai made landfall over the city of Beira: a rapidly growing, low-lying city on a coastline vulnerable to storm surges and already facing the consequences of sea level rise. Idai’s victims personify why we need the global agenda on sustainable development, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction,” said Taalas.
The start of this year has also seen warm record daily winter temperatures in Europe, unusual cold in North America and searing heatwaves in Australia. Arctic and Antarctic ice extent is yet again well below average.
According to WMO’s latest Global Seasonal Climate Update (March to May), above average sea surface temperatures – partly because of a weak strength El Niño in the Pacific – is expected to lead to above-normal land temperature, particularly in tropical latitudes.
Climate Action Summit
The WMO statement was launched at a joint press conference with UN Secretary General António Guterres, UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés and Taalas at United Nations headquarters in New York last week. The press conference coincided with a high-level meeting – Climate and Sustainable Development for All – that took an intergenerational approach in highlighting synergies between climate and broader Sustainable development goals. It also focused on identifying specific actions, commitments and means of implementation that can make a material difference to climate change mitigation and adaptation, or signal an emerging precedent for action
“The data released in this report give cause for great concern,” Guterres wrote in the report. “The past four years were the warmest on record, with the global average surface temperature in 2018 approximately 1°Celsius above the pre-industrial baseline.
“These data confirm the urgency of climate action,” the UN secretary general said “This was also emphasized by the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C. The IPCC found that limiting global warming to 1.5°C will require rapid and far reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities, and that global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.”
Guterres, who said there was no longer any time for delay, will convene a Climate Action Summit at Heads of State level Sept. 23, when the State of the Climate report is expected to be one of WMO’s contributions to the Summit. Taalas has been appointed chair to the Summit’s Science Advisory Group.
“It is one of my priorities as the president of the General Assembly to highlight the impacts of climate change on achieving the sustainable development goals and the need for a holistic understanding of the socio-economic consequences of increasingly intense extreme weather on countries around the world,” Espinosa Garcés said. “This current WMO report will make an important contribution to our combined international action to focus attention on this problem.”
USDA Study Shows Big GHG Benefits of Ethanol Compared with Gasoline
A new study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finds greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol are about 39 percent lower than gasoline. The study also states that when ethanol is refined at natural gas-powered refineries, the greenhouse gas emissions are even lower, around 43 percent below gasoline.
“These new findings provide further evidence that biofuels from America’s heartland reduce greenhouse gases even more than we thought, and that our farmers and ethanol plants continue to become more efficient and effective,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
The USDA chief tied the study’s findings what he called “President Trump…unleashing the full potential of American energy production as we retake our rightful place as the world’s leader.”
He also said recent moves by the administration to lift a summertime ban on E15 and expand the sale of the 15-percent ethanol-blend gasoline year-round “will provide consumers with more choices when they fill up at the pump, including environmentally friendly fuel with decreased emissions.”
EPA held a hearing on the EPA E15 proposal in Ypsilanti, MI, last week and set a relatively brief public comment scheduled to end April 29 in an effort to get the rule in place before the start of summer driving season June 1.
Perdue said he appreciated EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler moving expeditiously to finalize the E-15 rule.
The study, led by Dr. Jan Lewandrowski of USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist, and published in the journal Biofuels, supports findings of other research that ethanol has a significantly better greenhouse gas profile than previously estimated.
The study, titled “The Greenhouse Gas Benefits of Corn Ethanol – Assessing Recent Evidence,” attributes much of the additional benefits to revised estimates of the impacts of land-use change as a result of demand for ethanol. Where previous estimates anticipated farmers bringing additional land into production as a result of increased corn prices, recent analysis finds only modest increases in crop acreage.
A further decrease in emissions has also come from additional improvements at corn ethanol refineries, along with on-farm conservation practices such as reduced tillage and cover crops.
The study projects that with added improvements in refineries and on farms, a reduction of over 70 percent in lifecycle emissions is possible by 2022.
The study is available for download. More information on the greenhouse gas profile of biofuels is available at https://www.usda.gov/oce/oeep.
Big Rainfall Changes Projected for Key Crops, Even with Reduced Emissions
Even if humans radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, important crop-growing regions of the world can expect changes to rainfall patterns by 2040.
In fact, some regions are already experiencing new climatic regimes compared with just a generation ago. The study, published March 11 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, warns that up to 14 percent of land dedicated to wheat, corn, rice and soybeans will be drier, while up to 31 percent will be wetter.
The study uses four emissions scenarios from low to high to predict time of emergence (TOE) of permanent precipitation changes, meaning the year by which precipitation changes remain permanently outside their historical variation in a specific location. The research shows that quick action on emissions – in line with 2015’s Paris Agreement – would push TOE projections deeper into the future or reduce the size of affected areas.
Drier regions include Southwestern Australia, Southern Africa, southwestern South America, and the Mediterranean, according to the study. Wheat cropland in Central Mexico is also headed for a drier future. Wetter areas include Canada, Russia, India and the Eastern United States.
The four crops in the study represent about 40 percent of global caloric intake and the authors say that, regardless of how much mitigation is achieved, all regions – both wetter and drier – need to invest in adaptation, and do so urgently in areas expected to see major changes in the next couple of decades. However, in the scenarios with low greenhouse gas emissions, most regions have two to three decades more to adapt than under high-emission scenarios.
Low-emission scenarios, the authors stressed, likely imply less need for potentially costly adaptation to new rainfall regimes.
Drier conditions are expected for many major wheat producers. In Australia, about 27 percent of wheat-growing land will see less precipitation, under a mid-emissions scenario. Algeria (100 percent), Morocco (91 percent), South Africa (79 percent), Mexico (74 percent), Spain (55 percent), Chile (40 percent), Turkey (28 percent), Italy (20 percent) and Egypt (15 percent) are other major producers that will be affected. Higher emissions mean a larger amount of land will become dry sooner, the study found.
“These are definitely countries that will need to think rather quickly what they’d like to do with their wheat production,” said Maisa Rojas, the study’s lead author and climatologist at Universidad de Chile. Colleagues at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, the University of Leeds, Chile’s Center for Climate and Resilience Research, and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (UC) co-authored the study.
“What we’re predicting are probably conservative years for time of emergence,” said Rojas. “Detectable precipitation changes are of course not only important for agriculture, but for water resource management more in general, so our results are relevant for other sectors as well.”
One stunning aspect of the study is how quickly global precipitation is changing. The baseline for comparison is 20 years spanning 1986-2005. A handful of regions already have crossed that “historical” average into an entirely new rainfall regime, including Russia, Norway, Canada and the parts of the East Coast of the United States. The study projects that up to 36 percent of all land area will be wetter or drier under a high-emission scenario.
“Farmers growing crops in those areas are going to experience significantly different conditions than what they are used to,” said Julian Ramirez-Villegas, a scientist with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). “They’re going to be completely outside their normal historical environments and many farmers are already struggling with historic variability.”
Areas not reflected in the study are likely to have precipitation changes as well, said Rojas. But because natural variation in those areas is high, extreme change is needed before researchers can detect their times of emergence.
“Other studies have examined time of emergence in global temperature and precipitation,” said Fabrice Lambert, a UC professor and co-author. “The interesting thing about this study is that we overlay the climatic results with spatial cropland distribution and growing seasons to show which agricultural production regions will be impacted by precipitation changes, and how much time they have to prepare.”
The world’s most populous countries – China and India – are among those that will have much wetter fields for the four crops included in the study, under any emission scenario. Percentage of cropland that will extend into high double-digits. Asia’s other big rice producers, including Japan, Korea and the Philippines will have TOEs for increased rainfall.
Wheat fields northern Europe, the United States, Canada and Russia will have higher precipitation.
More precipitation may mean higher production, but when coupled with rising sea levels, higher temperatures and increased potential for flooding, higher production is not assured, said the authors.
“The precise nature of the changes is impossible to predict,” said Andy Challinor, a co-author and professor at the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds. “What this study tells us is that adaptation needs to be agile. For the first time, we can tell what changes to be ready for – and when they are expected – in our major crop-growing regions. Prior to this study, the rainfall changes experienced by crops were thought to be so unpredictable that no real advice could be given.”
EPA Says Proposal Will Extend RVP Waiver to E15, Tighten RIN Market
EPA action on biofuels last month drew both cautious praise and harsh criticism from stakeholders, generating conflicting assessments from biofuel groups and oil refiners that have already taken the issue to court.
After years of pleas from farm groups and ethanol producers, the EPA on March 12 proposed regulatory changes that would lift the ban on the summertime sales of E15 (gasoline blended with up to 15 percent ethanol) in most of the country. As part of its proposal, the EPA is also calling for changes to the renewable identification number (RIN) compliance system under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program to enhance transparency in the market and deter price manipulation.
To expand E15 sales, the rule would extend an exemption of air quality rules – the 1-psi Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) waiver – that covers E10 gasoline to also include the higher blends. In its announcement of the proposal, the EPA conceded the summertime ban on E15 sales “has been unnecessary.” The agency’s proposal interprets the Clean Air Act as authorizing the waiver being applicable to ethanol blends containing at least 10 percent ethanol, including E15. Broad research, including that done by the agency, shows E15 poses no greater air quality risk than E10 during summer months.
USDA announced this week it’s own study that finds E10 emits 39 percent less carbon dioxide when compared to conventional gasoline.
RINs are serial numbers assigned to batches of biofuels to certify and track their production, use and trading. The EPA’s RIN proposal is a response to a volatile fluctuation in prices of the certifications in recent years that have triggered allegations of market manipulation.
Ethanol groups said that while they are grateful that the rule is finally up for consideration, they have concerns as to whether it can be done in time, especially given a five-week holdup in its development earlier this year due to the federal government shutdown.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who noted the rule is the result of a directive handed down by President Trump last October, says the regulation changes will be in place by June 1, the beginning of the summer driving season.
A public comment period was launched with the publication of the proposal in the Federal Register March 21 and will conclude April 29. Read more…
Farmers in China Can Manage Land Economic
And Environmental Benefits: Research
Rather than just harvesting crops, farmers in China and are also being encouraged to manage their diverse agricultural lands in a way that will provide flood control, water purification and climate stabilization, among other valuable services.
A recent case study by researchers at Stanford University, McGill University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences provides a promising demonstration of the approach – farmers who took environmental concerns into account doubled their incomes and reduced reliance on a single harvest while also gaining environmental benefits from the land.
The group said the approach could help farmers worldwide protect both the environment and their livelihoods.
“Twentieth-century monoculture farms greatly increased agricultural production, but at a huge price,” said Gretchen Daily, co-founder and faculty director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project. “Conventional thinking says that monoculture farming is the only way to feed the world, but today there is a lot of rethinking, as billions of people are exposed to heightened flood risk, water pollution, climate risk and other serious vulnerabilities.”
Daily, a professor of environmental science at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, was senior author on a paper describing the results, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Read more…