Some areas experienced historic floods, others saw historic droughts. Is climate change to blame?
Natural Resources Defense Council
A once-in-five-hundred-year flood inundated the Mississippi River valley. A once-in-a-century drought in Texas shriveled the summer's crops and sparked sweeping forest fires. The deadliest tornado season on record tore communities to splinters. 2011 was clearly a year of extreme weather.
Perhaps it is a sign of the pending 2012 apocalypse, but more likely, it is the result of a changing climate that is amplifying extremes. The chart above marks more than 2,900 separate weather records broken this year, and these records were costly. In all, Mother Nature inflicted $52 billion dollars in damage on the United States.
However, 2011 is not the most expensive natural disaster year on record. That distinction belongs to 2005, the year Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused more than $150 billion in destruction along the Gulf Coast. The difference is that 2005 had only five disasters that reached the billion dollar mark; 2011 had 12, and according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that sets a new record.
Two of the most consequential weather stories of the year were the drought in Texas and the tornado season in the Midwest. For most of the spring, summer, and fall, the Lone Star state was plagued by exceptional drought -- the highest level recorded by the U.S. drought monitor. The situation has eased somewhat in recent weeks, but climatologists say that because of the persistent pattern of La Niña (cooling off the coast of South America influencing the jet stream over North America), the drought is likely to linger into the new year.
The impacts of the record-breaking summer were enormous. Texas reservoirs sank to their lowest levels in years, even revealing long-forgotten underwater ghost towns. Authorities began predicting long-term water shortages in the state. Crops withered. Cattle herds died in the sun, causing the price of beef and other staples to increase across the country. Nearly half a billion trees perished for lack of rain. On this map comparing average temperature and average rainfall for Texas summers, it is not difficult to find the outlier.
And of course, some of the most powerful images of nature's destruction this year came from Joplin, Missouri, where an EF-5 tornado killed 159 people and destroyed 700 homes. But this was only one of several deadly tornado outbreaks in 2011. In total, 552 Americans died in twisters this year, 12 times the number of tornado deaths of last year and the most since the 1950s.
While it is hard to blame all of this meteorological activity on global warming, 2011 provides evidence of a planet with a wilder climate.
"This year we had three weather events that matched or exceeded three U.S. weather extremes," Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and founder of The Weather Underground blog, says. The Mississippi flood was higher than any other, the Texas drought was drier than any other, and the tornado season was deadlier than any other. "It boggles my mind."
Additionally, Masters finds the records broken this year to be indicative of a more extreme planet. "Fifty-six percent of the U.S. had a top 10 percent wettest or driest year. That's a record." That divergent pattern is to be expected with climate change -- the wet areas will grow wetter, the dry areas drier.
These billion dollar disasters are only likely to increase in the coming years, Masters says, and population growth and increasing wealth factor in as well. If there are more structures to destroy, one storm will cause increasing amounts of damage.
"The climate has changed," Kevin Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, tells me via email. He says since the 1970s, the water vapor over the oceans has increased by 4 percent. That water vapor acts as fuel to weather systems, contributing to the severity of the Mississippi flood, and to the thunderstorms which produced the spring's tornadoes.
"Hurricane Irene flooding had a component (5 to
10 percent) from human-induced global warming," he says. "It may not sound like much but it is often the straw that breaks the camel's back."
Here's a recap of the some of the top weather disasters in 2011. (This list is limited to the U.S. The rest of the world had its own share of nature-inflicted tragedy this year, including the 9.0 Japanese earthquake that killed 10,000 people and cost $309 billion.)
Why some progressives are minimizing Russia’s election meddling
When it comes to possible collusion with Russia, Donald Trump’s most interesting defenders don’t reside on the political right. They reside on the political left.
Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich aren’t defending a principle. They’re defending a patron. Until recently they were ultra-hawks. Now, to downplay Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, they sound like ultra-doves. All that matters is supporting their ally in the White House.
For left-wing defenders like Max Blumenthal and Glenn Greenwald, by contrast, ideology is king. Blumenthal and Greenwald loathe Trump. But they loathe hawkish foreign policy more. So they minimize Russia’s election meddling to oppose what they see as a new Cold War.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Many point to unromantic 20-somethings and women’s entry into the workforce, but an overlooked factor is the trouble young men have in finding steady, well-paid jobs.
TOKYO—Japan’s population is shrinking. For the first time since the government started keeping track more than a century ago, there were fewer than 1 million births last year, as the country’s population fell by more than 300,000 people. The blame has long been put on Japan’s young people, who are accused of not having enough sex, and on women, who, the narrative goes, put their careers before thoughts of getting married and having a family.
But there’s another, simpler explanation for the country’s low birth rate, one that has implications for the U.S.: Japan’s birth rate may be falling because there are fewer good opportunities for young people, and especially men, in the country’s economy. In a country where men are still widely expected to be breadwinners and support families, a lack of good jobs may be creating a class of men who don’t marry and have children because they—and their potential partners—know they can’t afford to.
What’s gained and what’s lost when religion becomes an individualist—or even consumerist—endeavor?
Two perceived qualities of Orthodox Judaism—authenticity and ancientness—are enticing people outside this religious tradition to pay for the chance to sample it. In Israel, secular citizens and foreign visitors willing to fork over $20 to the tour company Israel-2Go can embark on a trip to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where they’ll watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene. They can also pay to take a tour of the menorahs in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways during Hanukkah; eat a five-course Friday night Shabbat meal in the home of an observant family; or hear a lecture about the different nuances of the black-and-white garb worn by men from various ultra-Orthodox sects.
I used to adore the Pride and Prejudice author. But over the years I’ve grown more ambivalent toward her and the fervor for her work.
I once confessed to an audience gathered for a pre-show talk about Pride and Prejudice that I felt a bit salty to see so many of them in attendance. A few months earlier, I explained, I’d given an absolutely fascinating lecture on Mary Shelley to maybe five people, one of whom was my Aunt Carmen. The crowd for Jane Austen—and it was a crowd—laughed. A mix of students, folks from the surrounding towns, and my colleagues were there to see a stage adaptation of what is arguably the author’s most popular novel. It was my job to introduce the performance, and I was terrified. It’s no small thing to talk about Austen in public. There’s always a cluster of people who have been reading her since before they could walk, and they not only have strong opinions but also know her and her writing like my mother knew the Bible.
A conservative group is resisting congressional efforts to kneecap FOIA.
The health-care clusterfudge continues. Senator John McCain has brain cancer. President Trump throws another public tantrum. Russia, Russia, Russia.
That about covers the Big Political Headlines of the week. Now for something really sexy: the creeping assault on the Freedom of Information Act.
Stop right there! No clicking over to that Tucker Carlson YouTube rant. This is another one of those ticky-tacky, below-the-radar issues that may sound like a nonprescription substitute for Ambien but is, practically speaking, super important—especially in the Age of Trump.
FOIA is what enables regular people to pester powerful federal agencies into handing over information about what they’ve been up to. FOIA’s website calls it “the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.” Though a tad grandiose, that characterization is pretty much accurate. And never has such a tool been quite so vital as with the current White House, which has adopted a policy of unabashedly lying about pretty much everything.
There’s a fine line between caring and controlling—but older adults and their grown children often disagree on where it is.
Several years ago, I wrote a book aimed at helping adult children of my generation manage the many challenges of caring for our aging parents. I interviewed women and men across the country about their struggles and successes. I also spoke with members of the helping professions: geriatricians, social workers, elder-law attorneys, administrators of assisted-living facilities, and just about anyone and everyone who I thought could shed light on the subject. Everybody, that is, except the aging parents.
That now strikes me as a glaring omission. No doubt it’s because I’ve since become an aging parent that I find myself looking at the matter of parent care from a different perspective. I nod in agreement when the son of a friend expresses concern to me about his dad driving after dark, but I also understand when my friend, his father, complains of “being badgered by my kids about my driving.” He and his children may have different answers to the situation’s key questions: How serious a problem is the father’s driving? And how capable is the father of making his own decisions? Certainly there are situations where an adult child’s intervention in the ailing parent’s life is clearly needed, but what if this isn’t one of those times?
A long time ago, beds were expensive—but there's more to it than that.
With a guest in town occupying the second bedroom of our Manhattan apartment, my three-year-old son, a notorious sideways sleeper, bunked with my pregnant wife and me. Too many snores and little feet in the back of my neck, I relocated to the sofa, where I was blessed with the best night’s sleep I’ve had in months.
As a self-diagnosed insomniac, a good night’s rest for me lasts anywhere from three to five hours. I generally break up the slumber with walks around the apartment, followed by lying awake and unearthing inconsequential paranoia that, come morning, will not live up to the hype. When I hear people claim they get eight hours of sleep each night, they might as well be talking about the Loch Ness Monster, or alien life. All three are things I suppose it’s possible someone may have encountered, but I cannot personally confirm their existence.
Even hardcore devotees disagree, though many acknowledge there’s something profoundly spiritual about catching waves—a feeling scientists attribute to the power of being in the water.
A decade ago, working my first journalism job while also pretending I surfed for a living, I rented a cheap loft in a three-story Victorian across the street from Ocean Beach in San Francisco. The home is still there as it was. Seahorses are still engraved in the blue window shutters, and the same landlord, Carol Schuldt, can still be found feeding her chickens in the backyard. If she’s not out surfing.
Schuldt—who I also write about in my new memoir, All Our Waves Are Water—is something of San Francisco's patron surf saint, her home a pelagic shrine where local surfers have long left firewood offerings. At 83, after a lifetime of wave riding, helping beach bums find cheap rent, and sometimes helping them get off drugs, too, Schuldt still rides her rusted beach cruiser to the dunes and bodysurfs these frigid waves without a wetsuit. “It’s where I can still connect to the Universal Mind,” she told me while we hiked the ice-planted dunes a few years ago, “to God, Jaimal—you know.”
On Flower Boy the rapper suggests he’s not straight—and struggles with a stigma he helped propagate.
Tyler, the Creator became famous, in part, for being hateful. When his rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (“Odd Future” is fine) caught buzz around 2010, it was because of their delirious energy and Eminem-like love of mayhem. But it was their threats against women and “faggots,” delivered in song and on social media, that elevated them from subculture phenomenon to become essay prompt and political flashpoint. The likes of GLAAD and the band Tegan and Sara declared Tyler poisonous and asked the music industry to stop supporting him. Theresa May, back when she was home secretary of the U.K., took the extraordinary step of banning him from her country because his lyrics “encourage violence and intolerance of homosexuality.”