Thu, 15 Apr 2021

by Peter Mertz

DENVER, the United States, Feb. 27 (Xinhua) -- Another 17 million U.S. dollars were added this week to America's enormous climate change bill.

"Every winter, Caltran (California Department of Transportation) spends 200 to 300 million U.S. dollars on these temporary fixes," renowned geologist and climate change expert Gary Griggs told Xinhua on Friday.

Caltran announced on Thursday that repairs to replace a 150-foot section of Highway 1 along the spectacular, rocky Big Sur Coast, that was blasted away by wildfire burnt debris and heavy rain a month ago, would cost only 11.5 million U.S. dollars, on top of 5 million dollars already spent on the disaster.

Compared to recent repairs to the iconic highway, 17 million dollars was a drop in the bucket. But this destruction was ominously different.

"Trees, rocks, mud and water ... created a debris flow that overwhelmed our drainage structure," said Caltran official Kevin Drabinski, whose Monterey County team responded quickly the night of the disaster with emergency funds to close roads, turn away motorists, and re-issue evacuation orders to 5,000 residents they had already warned.

The debris that shut down a 70-kilometers stretch of Highway 1 that Jan. 31 night came from "a combination" of forces, Drabinski said.

Charred remnants from the Dolan Fire, that had torched some 150,000 acres (607.02 square kilometers) just north of the washout in 2020, had combined with a torrential "Atmospheric River" coming from the ocean to create flooding and wash-off conditions never seen before.

"It's a new wrinkle," Drabinski told Xinhua. "The combination of flooding and debris flow from burn scars are something we need to consider in the future," noting that Caltran's 4-foot culverts installed decades ago to divert Rat Creek's flow, had been jammed with debris, and the intense volume of runoff had swept away a piece of the cliff-wrapping coastal highway.

Although floods and mud slides have long plagued the central California coast, Griggs noted, the recent addition of climate change factors has made the situation more precarious.

In 2017, Griggs was called in by Caltran to consult on nearby, similar mud-slide devastation - when Mud Creek erupted and covered a quarter-mile of Highway 1, when some 60,000 square meters of land had washed into the Pacific Ocean. That disaster cost Caltran some 54 million U.S. dollars to repair.

When Griggs talks about endless expenses to keep the historic, all-American highway open - and the titanic toll of climate change on these efforts - he knows what he's talking about.

Griggs has been a professor at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus (UCSC) for a staggering 53 years, earned dozens of awards and honors, and is a world-renowned expert in climate change, earth sciences, geology, hydrology, marine sciences, and oceanography.

When all these ingredients were put together, perhaps no-one knows the middle, most dramatic section of California's 970-km legendary California Highway 1 better than Griggs, who has authored some 10 books and 231 academic articles on costal conditions and climate change. ENORMOUS COST

"2020 brought 22 climate-change disasters costing 1 billion U.S. dollars or more and capped the hottest decade on record," a Market Watch website headline read last month, citing a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

And it's going to get worse - long predicted by the scientific community.

"What is pretty clear - all the climate models are showing that in (America's) West, the weather's going to get hotter with more droughts and water shortages ... and that seems to be exactly what has happened," Griggs told Xinhua.

These conditions produce "winter precipitation that is more concentrated and focused," and can trigger flooding disasters such as the one last month, Griggs noted.

Last year's global temperatures were 0.6 degrees Celsius warmer than the 1981-2010 average, and 1.25 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, according to data published last month by the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service.

The parallels to record high temperatures and costly disasters are direct and without refutation.

With 2020 global temperatures tying the record high reached in 2016, the record-breaking 22 weather and climate disasters in 2020 cost over 1 billion U.S. dollars each - shattering the annual record of 16 costly disasters in both 2011 and 2017, according to NOAA.

Other aberrant weather disasters triggered by climate-change broke records in 2020, NOAA said, including 30 named hurricane storms, breaking the previous record of 28 set in 2005, and the most active wildfire year on record across America's West, with "five of the six largest fires in California history and the three largest fires on record in Colorado occurring in 2020."

The numbing 22 separate billion-dollar disasters identified in 2020 broke the previous record of 16 set in 2011 and matched in 2017, according to NOAA. EXPENSIVE 2021

California's big bills for climate change disaster in 2021 pale in comparison to what the Lone Star State endured this week.

The unprecedented freezing conditions in Texas could be the costliest disaster in the state history, potentially exceeding the 125 billion U.S. dollars price tag of the damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the Texas Tribune said on Wednesday.

The Texas turmoil, that caused thousands to go without power in historic blackout conditions, resulted from an inexplicable, massive Arctic weather front descending from Canada that stretched across much of the continental United States, according to the National Weather Service.

Another aberrant weather phenomenon - triggered by climate change - hit the California coast last month.

Just before Highway 1 fell hundreds of feet into the sea, a long stream of moisture from the subtropical Pacific Ocean, called an "Atmospheric River," saturated California from north to south for three days. The record-breaking rain also inundated parts of the state that were barren from wildfires, causing unprecedented debris flow, a double-dose of climate pain.

Atmospheric rivers are concentrated streams of moist air, generally more than 1,200 miles (1,930.8 kilometers) long, up to 620 miles (997.6 kilometers) wide, and about 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers) deep, according to an article from Inside Climate News earlier this month.

The term "Atmospheric River" was coined in 1990 by researchers Yong Zhu and Reginald Newell from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 2018, more than 300 top scientists from 13 U.S. federal agencies confirmed, "As the world warms, atmospheric rivers on the West Coast are likely to increase in frequency and severity," NOAA reported this year.

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