Thursday, August 12

Convergence, Part 3: Fire and Rain

3/23/10 - Part 1: orange lava, red rust, yellow dust, blue moon
3/25/10 - Part 2, Yellow Dust
(Blue Moon essay not yet published)
August 12 - 7:00 AM EDT (UKPA)
New rain piles on misery for China

Overnight thunderstorms have brought new misery to a remote area of north-western China as the death toll from weekend flooding and massive landslides rose to 1,117. The rains triggered new mudslides, leaving five more missing, and another swollen river threatening to overflow. The National Weather Centre forecast heavy rains in the coming days - up to 3.5in is expected in the already saturated region on Friday - and said the threat of additional landslides along the Bailong River was "relatively large". ...
CNN Update Pakistan floods 1321 GMT August 12:
...[I]n areas of neighboring Sindh province the Indus River was expected to crest Thursday, bringing fresh misery to a nation where torrential rains have snatched lives and livelihoods. The waters of the Indus could spread even further, damaging more crops and infrastructure. The Pakistani meteorological department put the likelihood of the river reaching flood level at "very high to exceptionally high."

From the Swat Valley in the north to Sindh province in the south, as many as 15 million Pakistanis have been affected by the massive flooding. By Thursday, the death toll had risen to 1,343, the Pakistan Disaster Authority said. It said 1,588 people have been injured and 352,291 people have been rescued. More than 722,600 houses and 4,600 villages have been damaged or destroyed.

Public health officials feared a second wave of deaths caused by water-borne diseases if action is not taken fast enough. More than 1 million people were in need of clean water. ...
August 12 - Russia wildfires update, New York Times

Russia wildfires August 11 Satellite Image: NASA Goddard
Image: BBC report August 11

Discover Magazine, August 11, 2010
Russia’s Fires & Pakistan’s Floods: The Result of a Stagnant Jet Stream?

The fires in western Russia continue to burn. Though the overall area now ablaze has shrunk, the number of individual fires has actually risen today. The death rate in Moscow has doubled, and Russia is racing to stop the flames from spreading to areas still affected by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster a quarter-century ago.

While firefighting goes on, attention turns to the “why?” Russia’s fire explosion has people wondering if there’s a bigger reason behind it. The topic seems particularly urgent because another major natural disaster is happening not so far away: in northern Pakistan, where exceptionally heavy monsoon rains have caused crushing floods. The big question–whether global warming is responsible–is still unanswered, but scientists do agree that a large weather pattern links the events.

According to meteorologists monitoring the atmosphere above the northern hemisphere, unusual holding patterns in the jet stream are to blame. As a result, weather systems sat still. Temperatures rocketed and rainfall reached extremes [New Scientist].

You’ve probably seen diagrams of the jet stream on weather charts, where a thick band represents its air currents that surge from west to east. However, New Scientist reports, a “blocking event” caused by west-pushing Rossby waves has slowed the jet stream’s flow. This happens from time to time, and it sets the stage for extreme conditions when weather systems hover over the same area.

Says Jeff Knight, climate scientist at the U.K. Met Office:

“Circulation anomalies tend to create warm and cool anomalies: while it has been very hot in western Russia, it has been cooler than average in adjacent parts of Siberia that lie on the other side of the high pressure system where Arctic air is being drawn southwards” [BBC News].

Pakistan also got stuck with a weather system that plunked down and wouldn’t move. The problem there, though, is that it’s monsoon season, and the weird circulation worsened that.
See Discover's website for additional links and data.TIME, August 10, 2010:
Will China's Bad Summer Make It Clean Up Its Act?
by Austin Ramzy

Rescuers in northwestern China are continuing to search for survivors in parts of remote Zhouqu county that were engulfed by massive mudslides early on August 8. The death toll in the disaster has risen to at least 700, with another 1,148 missing, as heavy rains unleashed waves of mud and rock that buried houses and toppled buildings. Flooding around the country over the past month has killed another 1,454 and left more than 600 missing, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. It is the worst flooding here in more than a decade

Premier Wen Jiabao, a frequent presence at the scene of natural disasters, has made several trips around the country over the past month, most recently to Zhouqu, where he urged rescuers to do everything possibly to find survivors during the critical hours after the disaster struck. "For those who are buried under the debris, now is the most crucial time to save their lives," he told local officials, according to the state-run Xinhua news service.

Even as rescue operations unfold, though, some Chinese are questioning why their country has been hit by such extensive natural disasters this summer. The immediate cause is record rainfall. Officials have also blamed the Zhouqu disaster on the loose soil and lack of vegetation in arid Gansu province, as well as the lingering effects of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake on the stability of hillsides.

But some observers suggest the devastation has been exacerbated by aggressive efforts to spur economic growth in China's less prosperous regions. Western China has been the target of ongoing campaigns to bring development levels closer to those of the country's booming coastal areas. Now there are calls to examine just what impact that development is having.

"I hope this will lead to a review of national policy, to try to stop the grand development of the west from becoming a grand excavation of the west," says Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. "I think we should recognize how fragile the ecology is in the west of China and then change the policy."

That's just what happened in 1998, after heavy flooding killed some 4,000 people. In response, the government ordered the construction of greater flood-control mechanisms, especially along the Yangtze River, where several sections of levees failed.

To curb erosion, China also paid farmers to abandon steep, hillside plots and banned logging in virgin forests. Those steps all helped reduce environmental degradation, says Ma.

But as the Chinese economy has grown — it quintupled between 1998 and 2009 — the nature of the threat to river systems has changed. "Now it is construction of major projects in those regions, like dam projects and mining," Ma says.

"These projects have caused a new round of destruction in the hilly regions and the scale is pretty big." (Read "Battling Floods in China.")

A 2006 study by scholars from Lanzhou University, in the provincial capital, found that 50 years of human activity, including farming, logging, mining, road construction and dam building meant that "unstable mountainsides, avalanches, landslides and debris flows had become increasingly frequent."

According to a February 2009 report by Zhouqu's office of science and technology, the county had five hydroelectric plants and planned to build another six over the next two years, tripling the total power output.

"Western regions like Gansu have seen extraordinary economic growth in recent years," says Xu Xiangyang, professor of hydrology at Hohai University in Nanjing. "At the same time, local governments don't put as much emphasis on environmental protection, which is partially why landslides have been more frequent these years. Even though the central government has attached great importance to the environment, local governments often neglect it because it does not generate fast money." ...
— with reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing
People wait to cross a flooded road in Bannu, northwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Ijaz Mohammad) For full-size version of photo (#22) see Boston Globe's stunning photo album of 40 'Big Pictures' of flooding and rains in Pakistan that Globe staff picked from best newswire photographs.

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