Posts Tagged ‘National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’

Let’s Go Shopping!

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Despite rising gas prices, retail sales in the U.S. rose 0.8 percent in March, proof that consumers are still filling up their tanks, according to economists.  The rise in purchases follows a 1.1 percent increased in February that was the biggest in five months, according to a survey of 71 economists.  The gain sent retail sales to a record high of $411.1 billion, 24 percent higher than the recession low hit in March 2009.  “Retail sales are going to end the quarter on a positive note,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc.  “Underlying job growth is decent.”

Sales may have been helped by the unusually warm weather. The average temperature was 51.1 degrees Fahrenheit, the warmest on record for the month in the past 117 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The economy expanded “at a modest to moderate pace” from mid-February through late March as manufacturing, hiring and retail sales strengthened, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Beige Book report.  The central bank is maintaining its benchmark interest rate near zero until late 2014 to encourage economic expansion.

Americans spent more on building materials, cars, electronics, furniture and clothing in March.  A separate Department of Commerce report showed that American companies restocked at a steady pace in February, which suggests that businesses expect consumers to continue spending this spring.  The retail sales report is the government’s initial monthly look at consumer spending, which represents 70 percent of economic activity.  The increase, along with other positive data on inventories and trade, suggests growth in the January-March quarter could be stronger than first thought.  Economists are estimating growth at an annual rate of between 2.5 percent and three percent in the 1st quarter, which is in line with the annual pace reported for the October-December quarter.  Americans are feeling greater confidence in the economy after seeing hiring strengthen over the winter.  Job gains were typically 246,000 per month from December through February.

In terms of cars, “The industry and consumers have been very resilient in the face of higher pump prices,” Don Johnson, vice president of U.S. sales at General Motors, said.  “The steadily improving economy is playing a role and so is pent-up demand and an improved credit market.”

Corporate stockpiles rose a seasonally adjusted 0.6 percent, according to the Commerce Department. That’s less than January’s upwardly revised gain of 0.8 percent. The increase pushed stockpiles to $1.58 trillion which is nearly 20 percent more than the recent low hit in September 2009, just after the recession ended. Sales grew faster than inventories in February, rising 0.7 percent.  This is a good sign because it is evidence that companies aren’t building too much inventory, which can result in cutbacks in production in the future.

“The pace of inventory building is consistent with what you’d expect to see in a gradual expansion,” said Tim Quinlan, an economist at Wells Fargo.  Businesses are rebuilding their stockpiles after cutting them over the summer in fear of a double-dip recession.  Steady inventory growth in the 1st quarter, as well as a narrower trade deficit in February and stronger retail sales, has lifted the outlook for growth.

American households “have the income to propel their purchases now that we’re seeing job growth,” said Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Inc., the third- best forecaster of retail sales for the 24 months ended in March.  “They have adjusted to the higher price of fuel.  The economy now needs to build on its own momentum.”

Great Lakes Are on Thin Ice

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

The Great Lakes winter ice cover has dropped dramatically over the past 40 years, according to a new report. On average, peak ice has fallen by 71 percent; Lake Michigan’s ice cover has shrunk even more than that.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) compared satellite photos dating to 1973.  Jia Wang, a NOAA ice climatologist, said the changes are stark.  In a year like 1979, ice covered about 94 percent of the lakes in the coldest months of that winter.  “This winter the maximum ice cover is about five percent,” Wang said.  “It’s the lowest ever since the satellite era.”  The drop in ice cover is largely a result of rising temperatures due to climate change.  There are also other factors at play this year in particular, such as El Nino weather patterns.  According to Wang, such a loss of winter ice can cause several problems for the Great Lakes ecosystem.  For example, it can accelerate wintertime evaporation from the lakes, which could reduce water levels.  The trend could also stimulate more and earlier algae blooms, which damage water quality and habitat.  Additionally, it leaves the shoreline more exposed to waves, exacerbating erosion.

The changes in the Great Lakes could make them a dead zone. According to the University of Michigan’s Don Scavia, “By end of the century, Illinois will feel like Texas.  And Michigan will feel like Arkansas.”  Scavia, who leads the university’s Environmental Sustainability Institute, laid out a disconcerting list of changes already taking place in the Great Lakes region as the result of climate change.  According to Scavia the changes include the last frost in spring occurs earlier and earlier, while the first frost in fall is later and later.  This is extending the growing season, as well as changing what plants and crops can grow in the region.  Storms are more intense, and major weather events happen more frequently.

The most alarming potential scenario is the possibility that the Great Lakes to become a dead zone, a body of water that lacks oxygen and no fish or plants can survive.  This happened to Lake Erie in the 1960s, resulting from algal blooms caused by industrial pollution, human waste and farm run-off.  Lake Erie’s devastation led to the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.  Oxygen levels in the lake improved in the 1980s, but worsened again in the 1990s.  Recent studies have shown that algae in Lake Erie is returning.

Although lakefront residents may enjoy the more temperate beachfront this year, ice is crucial in maintaining coastal wetlands and water depth.  The wetlands act as an incubator for wildlife in the Great Lakes basin.  Wetlands — the marshy shorelines that harbor numerous plants and animals — require the constant variation of the seasons and Great Lakes water levels.  The lack of substantial ice coverage results in greater evaporation, which leaves water levels across the Great Lakes lower over the long term.

“Having low water levels next year doesn’t make me nervous.  Having low levels over the last 10 years makes me worry,” said Donald Uzarski, director of Central Michigan University’s Institute for Great Lakes Research.  “We’ll see what happens with respect to the water levels.  When the water level’s lower, the coastal wetlands stretch out towards the water’s edge,” out into exposed shoreline areas that are usually under water.

Rather surprisingly, extreme summer and winter temperatures are actually considered good for wetlands. These conditions can feed the growth of wetlands, which are “very dynamic and very responsive to water levels,” according to Kurt Kowalski of the United States Geological Survey.  Climatologists studying lake ice have noticed a steadier pattern of temperatures within the last 10 years.  “The frequency of mild winters has been on the increase.  We’re certainly in a trend for milder winters now,” said Ray Assel, a retired climatologist, recently of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

According to the Canadian Ice Service, ice cover on the Great Lakes for the week of March 5, 2011 was approximately 36 percent and close to the historical average of 38 percent.  By contrast, ice cover for the week of March 5, 2012 has been exceptionally low and is only about 12 percent.

Writing on the earthsky.org website, Deanna Conners says that “In fact, ice cover has been so low this year on Lake Erie that officials began removing the ice boom that prevents large chunks of ice from flowing out into the Niagara River on February 28, 2012.  This is the earliest date for removal since the boom was first installed in the mid 1960s.  The ice boom acts to prevent ice damage to hydropower intake equipment.  Early boom removal is our harbinger of an early spring in western New York.  Dare I say that I think the groundhog was wrong this year?”

Another sign of the times comes from the Daily Great Lakes Seaway Shipping News, which notes that “Shipments of iron ore on the Great Lakes totaled 3,587,016 net tons in January, an increase of 24 percent over a year ago, and 57 percent ahead of the month’s five-year average”.  In typical winters when the Great Lakes have a more widespread ice cover, the billion dollar shipping activity comes to a virtual halt.  Click on this link to view a map of the extent of Great Lakes ice during the cold and snowy winter of 1979, the last time the Great Lakes were more than 95 percent frozen over.

Is the Minnesota Forest Fire a Symptom of Climate Change?

Monday, September 19th, 2011

An August 18 lightning strike in a northern Minnesota forest after an unusually hot summer started a month-long fire that brought a pall of smoke to Chicago nearly a month after the blaze started.  Driven by northwest winds, the fire in the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that straddles the Canadian border grew from about 11,000 acres to more than 100,000, said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the firefighting effort.

The Pagami Creek fire jumped about 16 miles east in a single day, “unprecedented for northern Minnesota,” said Lisa Radosevich-Craig, a firefighting spokeswoman.  The conflagration is in an area popular with canoeists and campers deep within the three million-acre Superior National Forest, approximately 80 miles north of Duluth.  According to Radosevich-Craig, the fire was spread by near-drought conditions that had already prompted the Forest Service to close some parts of the reserve and limit campfires in others.  “Typically more than an inch of rain would have fallen in this area during this time but didn’t,” Radosevich-Craig said.  “Where the winds are coming from and the strength of the winds is unprecedented.”  The fire has burned at least 160 square miles at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, making it one of Minnesota’s largest on record.

The smoke was heavy enough in the Chicago area – which is 600 miles to the south — that some people complained about burning eyes and breathing problems, the National Weather Service said.  No one has been injured by the fire and no buildings have been destroyed.  “Nobody would have guessed it would be doubling and quadrupling in size,” said Jean Bergerson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center.

“Sometimes it’s like snow falling, there’s so much ash coming down.  And the smoke is so thick it hurts your eyes and throat.  But other times the wind switches and you can’t tell there’s a fire at all. It’s kind of odd,” said Sue Butler, owner of the Trestle Inn saloon on Crooked Lake.  The forest fire is the largest in Minnesota since 1918, surpassing 2007’s Ham Lake fire, which burned about 38,000 acres in Minnesota and another 38,000 in Ontario while also burning 163 buildings. 

“But the colder temperatures should really help.  It’s a lot harder for fire to spread when it’s in the 50s than when it’s in the 80s,” said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the inter-agency team battling the blaze.  “People (fire officials) were pretty surprised when they saw that 100,000-acre number go up on the board.  But I think there’s some optimism out there now.”  Fires in wilderness areas typically are allowed to run their course because they renew the forest naturally.  That was the initial policy with this fire as well, but Superior National Forest officials began an all-out assault to prevent the fire from spreading.  Those efforts came too late, and officials say they didn’t have enough firefighters or aircraft to stop the fire from growing significantly.

In terms of the haze that has blanketed the Chicago area, “The smoke is a big problem, added to the impact that mold count is higher, highest number we’ve had all year. The mold makes the smoke worse, and the smoke makes the mold worse,” said Dr. Joseph Leija, of Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, IL.

The fact that Minnesota is having its biggest forest fire in nearly a century naturally leads to the subject of global warming’s role in the blaze.  Wausau, WI-based WAOW.com’s “Weather You Like It or Not” column notes that “According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Climatic Data Center, the meteorological summer 2011 (June – August) was the second warmest in recorded history.  The average temperature across the U.S was 74.5 degrees which is 2.4 degrees above normal.  The hottest summer ever was that of 1936 with an average temperature of 74.6 degrees.  However the states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana did have their hottest summer on record in 2011.  Of course they also had exceptional drought.  Their number of days with 100 degrees or higher was off the charts.  Some areas had over 70 days of such heat.”

Global warming and years of outdated fire-prevention strategies are setting the stage for massive “mega-fires” that scar communities’ homes and pocketbooks.  Early findings from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) trace the circumstances around eight mega-fires across the world in an effort to find clues on how best to avoid them and minimize potential damage.  These fires are defined more by their impact on people and the environment than by their specific size.  “Mega-fire is more of a concept than a construct,” said Robert Keane, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory who was not involved with the report.  “What I interpret (mega-fire) to mean is not only is it large, but it affects a lot of people,” he said.  In the United States, just one or two percent of all wildfires become large incidents, but they engulf about 85 percent of total suppression-related costs and total more than 95 percent of the total acres burned, the report notes, citing earlier work.  “Among all wildfires, mega-fires are the most costly, the most destructive and the most damaging. Against the backdrop of global warming, their onset may be signaling that many conventional wildfire protection strategies are ‘running out of road.’” 

“The growing number of large wildfires and the increasing incidence of mega-fires — along with climate change projections for hotter and drier fire seasons — lend urgency to this issue,” according to the report.

It’s HOT Out There!

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

A severe heat wave that has kept a tight grip on the Midwest and Eastern United States that has resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people  is perceived by many as a sign of the impact of global warming.  Excessive heat watches, warnings and heat advisories were in effect in more than 30 states, in what the weather service described as “a large portion of the central U.S. and Ohio River Valley, as well as portions of the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states.  Temperatures will feel like 100 to 110 degrees or higher during the afternoon hours.”

The heat wave has brought heat index values — which measure how hot it feels — to as high as 131.  Heat indices reached 129 in Newton, IA; 121 in Taylorville, IL; 122 in Gwinner, ND, and 123 in Hutchinson, MN.  Minneapolis recorded its highest dew point ever, 82 degrees.  The dew point measures atmospheric moisture.

“This is completely out of whack for the Upper Midwest,” said Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service.  The heat wave toppled existing peak records for electricity usage.  Xcel Energy, which serves 1.64 million customers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota, broke a demand record on Monday with 9,504 megawatts of power used, according to Tom Hoen, a company spokesman.  The old record set in August 2010 was 9,100 megawatts.  Utility companies in Iowa reported record usage.

In Chicago, the National Weather Service is warning that the heat wave could be the most intense since July 1999, with highs flirting with the record of 101 degrees set 31 years ago.  In the downtown area, which the weather service characterizes as an “urban heat island,” the index is likely to remain above 100 degrees late into the evening and probably will not fall below 90 all night.  More than a dozen heat-related deaths have been reported in the Midwest.

A “combination of very hot temperatures and high humidity will create dangerous heat indices over the central US”, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) The National Weather Service said a stagnant air mass on the central plains is the cause of the extended heat wave.  NOAA data affirm that temperatures have risen across the United States by roughly 1.5° F over the past 30 years.

This naturally leads to the subject of global warming.  According to Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway”,  Chicago’s 50-year forecast: lethal and extreme weather, a termite invasion and a 1 ½ foot drop in Lake Michigan’s depth.”

According to Aaron Durnbaugh, the deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment, the forecast is based on fact, not fiction.  “We worked closely with the best scientists we could find to put forward our forecast, both in a best-cast and worst-case scenario — looking towards the middle of the century and 2100, the end of the century — and identifying different impacts related to precipitation and temperature, and then a follow on impact from those changes.”

Chicago’s city planners have a plan to redesign the city to accommodate the 50-year forecast.  The plan, according to an article in the New York Times, includes everything from what types of trees to plant, to more permeable roads and water-storage tanks.  The city is preparing for “sun” days: “We’re expecting many more days above 90 or 95 degrees, with heat spiking potentially to 117 degrees in the summer,” Durnbaugh said.  “And we have a history, unfortunately, of heat-related disasters in Chicago.  Cities adapt or they go away.  Climate change is happening in both real and dramatic ways, but also in slow, pervasive ways.  We can handle it, but we do need to acknowledge it. We are on a 50-year cycle, but we need to get going.”

According to a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, global climate change could, by 2081 to 2100, drive that average number of yearly heat wave-related deaths to between 166 and 2,217.  “Our study looks to quantify the impact of increased heat waves on human mortality,” said lead author Roger Peng, associate professor of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University. “For a major U.S. city like Chicago, the impact will likely be profound and potentially devastating.  It’s very difficult to make predictions, but given what we know now — absent any form of adaptation or mitigation — our study shows that climate change will exacerbate the health impact of heat waves across a range of plausible future scenarios,” Peng concluded.