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July/August 2008

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Weather Front

Final Two Tsunami Buoys Launched

NOAA has launched the final two buoys in its tsunami detection network, making for a total of 39 stations that provide real-time data to the tsunami warning system for coastal communities in the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico.

The final two deep-ocean assessment and reporting of tsunami (DART) stations are located in the South Pacific off the Solomon Islands and are intended to serve as advance warning stations for the U.S. Pacific Coast, Hawaii, and U.S. Pacific territories.
The station itself is composed of a bottom pressure sensor that is anchored to the ocean floor and is moored to a buoy on the surface. The sensor transmits data to the buoy, and satellite links relay the data to NOAA tsunami warning centers.

These data—together with NOAA’s tsunami warning centers, forecast models for at-risk communities, a network of tide and seismic stations, and the public preparedness and education program TsunamiReadyTM—comprise NOAA’s tsunami warning system.
NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, said, “Completing the U.S. tsunami warning system is truly a monumental triumph that includes the advancement of the science, the development and testing of cutting edge technology, and the large-scale project management skills that brought it all together on a global scale.”

Since the Indonesian tsunami that struck in December 2004, NOAA has been working to make multiple upgrades to the U.S. tsunami warning system. These upgrades include installing or upgrading eight seismic stations, extending the operations of the Pacific and West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Centers to run continuously, assisting Australia and Indonesia with the installation of off-shore tsunami warning systems, installing 49 new or upgraded tide gauges, expanding the network of DART buoys from 6 to 39, developing 26 inundation forecasting models, and implementing a new tsunami warning system.

Rising Tempers
A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences speculates that climate change could have dire consequences for our political future. Peter Brecke, an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs; David Zhang, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong; and colleagues in China and the United Kingdom said that as temperatures decreased during the Little Ice Age, the number of wars increased, famines broke out, and the population decreased.

The researchers compared a number of data sets to come to their conclusions. To determine whether changes in temperature affected the number of wars, the researchers studied the time period between 1400 and 1900, the lowest recorded average global temperatures occurred around 1450, 1650, and 1820. The researchers also compiled war data from a number of sources, including a database of 4,500 wars worldwide and climate change records that included tree ring data and oxygen isotopes.

Analysis of the data showed a cyclic pattern of violence when low temperatures prevailed, followed by peaceful periods when temperatures were higher. Overall, the number of wars per year worldwide during the cold centuries was nearly twice that of the mild eighteenth century. The researchers speculate that the low temperatures affected growing seasons, land fertility, and water supplies, resulting in food shortages. This, in turn, led to conflict such as local uprisings, government destabilization, and invasions from neighboring regions. The overall result was population decline due to bloodshed during the wars, as well as starvation.

Though the study examined the effects of a climate shift toward a lower temperature, it could help policymakers understand the potential effects of climate change as it comes.
Brecke said, “Even though temperatures are increasing now, the same resulting conflicts may occur, since we still greatly depend on the land as our food source.” He added, “The warmer temperatures are probably good for a while, but beyond some level, plants will be stressed. With more droughts and a rapidly growing population, it is going to get harder and harder to provide food for everyone and thus we should not be surprised to see more instances of starvation and probably more cases of hungry people clashing over scarce food and water.”

One Side of the Coin
A team of researchers has concluded that an increase in economic damages from hurricanes in recent years is the result of larger populations, heavier infrastructure, and greater wealth on U.S. coastlines, and not the result of a greater number of hurricanes or an increase in their intensity.

In a study published in Natural Hazards Review, NOAA Science and Operations Officer Chris Landsea and colleagues at the National Hurricane Center in Miami found that economic damage resulting from hurricanes has been doubling in the United States every 10 to 15 years, and if more people continue to move to coastlines that are vulnerable to hurricanes, future economic losses could be far greater than previously indicated.

Landsea and colleagues found that if the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane were to strike today, it would cause $140 billion to $157 billion in damages—as opposed to the actual $1.2 billion in damages it caused in 1926, after adjustments for inflation. This is greater than the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which would then rank second at $81 billion in damages.

The team found that potential damage from storms, which currently is about $10 billion annually, is increasing at a rate that could place severe burdens on vulnerable communities, and that avoiding major losses will require a change in the rate of population growth on the coast, as well as significant improvements in construction standards or other mitigating standards.      

China's Water Problem
While most people have heard the noise about pollution in Beijing and whether or not it will be a factor in the 2008 summer Olympics, fewer have heard about a potentially larger problem looming on the horizon: a water shortage. Rainfall in and around Beijing has been below average since 1999, which, combined with explosive growth in the Chinese capital city, means that water resources per person are 1/30th of the world average.

The problem of too little rain in the northern area of the China plain has existed for centuries, but Beijing’s water supply has suffered severely in recent decades due to rapid development, increased agricultural use, and wealthier lifestyles. A polluted and damaged ecosystem creates even less rain.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s groundwater level has fallen 76 feet in the last 50 years, and the remaining water is overexploited.

China is working to address the problem over the long term by building a canal that will bring water from the Yangtze River and its tributaries by 2010. The first part of the project, which will bring 80 billion gallons of water a year from four reservoirs in nearby Hebei province, was scheduled to be completed this spring just before the Olympic Games.

“I think one of the things the Olympics is showing is it’s desperation time and Beijing has the power,” said James Nickum, an expert on Chinese water policy issues at Tokyo Jogakkan College in Japan.  

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