## US Weather Disasters in 2011

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is running out of money!

So far this year, ten weather disasters have each caused over a billion dollars of damage in the United States. This beats the record set in 2008, when there were nine. FEMA now has less than a billion dollars in its fund:

• Brian Naylor, Costs Of Irene Add Up As FEMA Runs Out Of Cash, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 30 August 2011.

Let’s review these disasters:

10) Hurricane Irene, August 27-28: A large and powerful Atlantic hurricane that left extensive flood and wind damage along its path through the Caribbean, the east coast of the US and as far north as Atlantic Canada. Early estimates say Irene caused $7 billion in damages in the US. 9) Upper Midwest flooding, summer: An above-average snowpack across the northern Rocky Mountains, combined with rainstorms, caused the Missouri and Souris rivers to swell beyond their banks across the Upper Midwest. An estimated 11,000 people were forced to evacuate Minot, N.D. Numerous levees were breached along the Missouri River, flooding thousands of acres of farmland. Over$2 billion in damages.

8) Mississippi River flooding, spring-summer: Persistent rainfall (nearly triple the normal amount in the Ohio Valley), combined with melting snowpack, caused historical flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. At least two people died. $2 to$4 billion in damages.

7) Southern Plains/Southwest drought, heat wave and wildfires, spring and summer: Drought, heat waves, and wildfires hit Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, southern Kansas, western Arkansas and Louisiana this year. Wildfire fighting costs for the region are about $1 million per day, with over 2,000 homes and structures lost by mid-August. Over$5 billion in damages so far.

6) Midwest/Southeast tornadoes, May 22-27: Central and southern states saw approximately 180 twisters and 177 deaths within a week. A tornado in Joplin, Mo., caused at least 141 deaths—the deadliest single tornado to strike the United States since modern record keeping began in 1950. Over $7 billion in damages. 5) Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest tornadoes, April 25-30: This outbreak of tornadoes over central and southern states led to 327 deaths. Of those fatalities, 240 occurred in Alabama. The deadliest of the estimated 305 tornadoes in the outbreak was an EF-5 that hit northern Alabama, killing 78 people. Several big cities were directly affected by strong tornadoes, including Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville in Alabama, and Chattanooga in Tennessee. Over$9 billion in damages.

4) Midwest/Southeast tornadoes, April 14-16: An outbreak over central and southern states produced an estimated 160 tornadoes. Thirty-eight people died, 22 of them in North Carolina. Over $2 billion in damages. 3) Southeast/Midwest tornadoes, April 8-11: An outbreak of tornadoes over central and southern states saw an estimated 59 tornadoes. Over$2.2 billion in damages.

2) Midwest/Southeast tornadoes, April 4-5: An outbreak of tornadoes over central and southern states saw an estimated 46 tornadoes. Nine people died. Over $2.3 billion in damages. 1) Blizzard, Jan 29-Feb 3: A large winter storm hit many central, eastern and northeastern states. 36 people died. Over$2 billion in damages.

I got most of this information from this article, which was written before Irene pushed 2011 into the lead:

• Brett Israel, 2011 ties for most billion-dollar weather disasters, Our Amazing Planet, 18 August 2011.

We can expect more weather disasters as global warming proceeds. The National Academy of Sciences says:

• Increases of precipitation at high latitudes and drying of the already semi-arid regions are projected with increasing global warming, with seasonal changes in several regions expected to be about 5-10% per degree of warming. However, patterns of precipitation show much larger variability across models than patterns of temperature.

• Large increases in the area burned by wildfire are expected in parts of Australia, western Canada, Eurasia and the United States.

• Extreme precipitation events—that is, days with the top 15% of rainfall—are expected to increase by 3-10% per degree of warming.

• In many regions the amount of flow in streams and rivers is expected to change by 5-15% per degree of warming, with decreases in some areas and increases in others.

• The total number of tropical cyclones should decrease slightly or remain unchanged. Their wind speed is expected to increase by 1-4% per degree of warming.

Some people worry about sea level rise, but I think the bite from weather disasters and ensuing crop failures will hurt much more, much sooner.

Since it doesn’t look like politicians will do enough to cut carbon emissions, insurance companies are moving to act on their own—not to prevent weather disasters, but to minimize their effect:

Swiss Re’s global headquarters face Lake Zurich, overlooking a small yacht harbor. Bresch and a colleague, Andreas Schraft, sometimes walk the 20 minutes to the train station together after work, past more yachts, an arboretum, and a series of bridges. In September 2005, probably on one of these walks, the two began to discuss what they now call “Faktor K,” for “Kultur”: the culture factor. Losses from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma had been much higher than expected in ways the existing windstorm models hadn’t predicted, and it wasn’t because they were far off on wind velocities.

The problem had to do more with how people on the Gulf Coast were assessing windstorm risk as a group. Mangrove swamps on the Louisiana coast had been cut down and used as fertilizer, stripping away a barrier that could have sapped the storm of some of its energy. Levees were underbuilt, not overbuilt. Reinsurers and modeling firms had focused on technology and the natural sciences; they were missing lessons from economists and social scientists. “We can’t just add another bell and whistle to the model,” says Bresch, “It’s about how societies tolerate risk.”

“We approach a lot of things as much as we can from the point of statistics and hard data,” says David Smith, head of model development for Eqecat, a natural hazards modeling firm. “It’s not the perfect expression.” The discrepancy between the loss his firm modeled for Katrina and the ultimate claims-based loss number for his clients was the largest Smith had seen. Like others in the industry, Eqecat had failed to anticipate the extent of levee failure. Construction quality in the Gulf states before Katrina was poorer than anticipated, and Eqecat was surprised by a surge in demand after the storm that inflated prices for labor and materials to rebuild. Smith recognizes that these are questions for sociologists and economists as well as engineers, and he consults with the softer sciences to get his models right. But his own market has its demands, too. “The more we can base the model on empirical data,” he says, “the more defendable it is.”

After their walk around the lake in 2005, Swiss Re’s Bresch and Schraft began meeting with social scientists and laying out two goals. First, they wanted to better understand the culture factor and, ultimately, the risks they were underwriting. Second, they wanted to use that understanding to help the insured prevent losses before they had to be paid for.

The business of insurers and reinsurers rests on balancing a risk between two extremes. If the risk isn’t probable enough, or the potential loss isn’t expensive enough, there’s no reason for anyone to buy insurance for it. If it’s too probable and the loss too expensive, the premium will be unaffordable. This is bad for both the insured and the insurer. So the insurance industry has an interest in what it calls “loss mitigation.” It encourages potential customers to keep their property from being destroyed in the first place. If Swiss Re is trying to affect the behavior of the property owners it underwrites, it’s sending a signal: Some behavior is so risky that it’s hard to price. Keep it up, and you’ll have no insurance and we’ll have no business. That’s bad for everyone.

To that end, Swiss Re has started speaking about climate risk, not climate change. That the climate is changing has been established in the eyes of the industry. “For a long time,” says Bresch, “people thought we only needed to do detailed modeling to truly understand in a specific region how the climate will change. … You can do that forever.” In many places, he says, climate change is only part of the story. The other part is economic development. In other words, we’re building in the wrong places in the wrong way, so wrong that what we build often isn’t even insurable. In an interview published by Swiss Re, Wolf Dombrowsky, of the Disaster Research Center at Kiel University in Germany, points out that it’s wrong to say that a natural disaster destroyed something; the destruction was not nature’s fault but our own.

In 1888 the city of Sundsvall in Sweden, built of wood, burned to the ground. A group of reinsurers, Swiss Re among them, let Sweden’s insurers know there was going to be a limit in the future on losses from wooden houses, and it was going to be low. Sweden began building with stone. Reinsurance is a product, but also a carrot in the negotiation between culture and reality; it lets societies know what habits are unsustainable.

More recently, the company has been working with McKinsey & Co., the European Commission, and several environmental groups to develop a methodology it calls the “economics of climate adaptation,” a way to encourage city planners to build in a way that will be insurable in the future. A study of the U.K. port of Hull looks at potential losses by 2030 under several different climate scenarios. Even under the most extreme, losses were expected to grow by $17 million due to climate change and by$23 million due to economic growth. How Hull builds in the next two decades matters more to it than the levels of carbon dioxide in the air. A similar study for Entergy (ETR), a New Orleans-based utility, concluded that adaptations on the Gulf Coast—such as tightening building codes, restoring wetlands and barrier islands, building levees around chemical plants, and requiring that new homes in high-risk areas be elevated—could almost completely offset the predicted cost of 100-year storms happening every 40 years.

I actually disagree somewhat with the statement “it’s wrong to say that a natural disaster destroyed something; the destruction was not nature’s fault but our own.” There’s some truth to this, but also some untruth. The question of “fault” or “blame” is a slippery one here, and there’s probably no way to completely settle it.

Is it the “fault” of people in Vermont that they weren’t fully prepared for a hurricane? After all, it’s rare—or at least it used to be rare—for hurricanes to make it that far north. The governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, recently said:

I find it extraordinary that so many political leaders won’t actually talk about the relationship between climate change, fossil fuels, our continuing irrational exuberance about burning fossil fuels, in light of these storm patterns that we’ve been experiencing.

We had storms this spring that flooded our downtowns and put us through many of the same exercises that we’re going through right now. We didn’t used to get weather patterns like this in Vermont. We didn’t get tropical storms. We didn’t get flash flooding.

We in the colder states are going to see the results of climate change first. Myself, Premier Charest up in Quebec, Governor Cuomo over in New York, we understand that the flooding and the extraordinary weather patterns that we’re seeing are a result of our burnings of fossil fuel. We’ve got to get off fossil fuels as quickly as we know how, to make this planet livable for our children and our grandchildren.

On the other hand, you could say that it is the fault of Vermonters, or at least humanity as a whole, for causing global warming in the first place.

But ultimately, pinning blame on someone or something is less important than figuring out how to solve the problems we face.

### 22 Responses to US Weather Disasters in 2011

1. Yrogirg says:

By the way does anybody know a simple _quantitative_ explanation why does hot air can store more water vapor than cold air? Since this dependency is crucial for processes related to global warming it would be interesting to have a simple theory.

And why does cold water store more oxygen than hot water (also some quantitative explanation)? As far as I know the fact that there is more ocean biomass closer to pole is due to this effect.

So both of these questions are very relevant to the Earth.

• Yrogirg says,

… does anybody know a simple _quantitative_ explanation why does hot air can store more water vapor than cold air?

Simple, but quantitative?

If you can take for granted that water’s vapour pressure increases with temperature,you can accept that this increases the density of saturated water vapour as temperature rises, and use this table to get the accepted facts.

It gives that density, in moles per cubic metre. You’ll have to page down to the “Vapor Phase Data” section, and read the mole density from the third column. If you want mass density, you can go in at the NIST fluid front door — http://webbook.nist.gov/chemistry/fluid/ — and make it give you that easily enough

In dry air at sea level pressure and 25°C there are, as I recall, 41 moles per cubic metre. As you go down that column, you get the mole concentrations of water vapour in increasingly warm, water-saturated air. If they behave ideally, and they very nearly do, that much air must vacate the cubic metre. So, for instance, at 310.16 K — blood heat — air that is in contact with water contains 2.4437 mol/m3 of water, and only (41-2.4437), if my 41 is right, of actual air.

Fun fact: water vapour is lighter than the air it replaces, and baseballs are reputed to fly better on humid days for this reason.

• k4ntico says:

G.R.L. Cowan, hydrogen-energy fan until ~1996 says:

Fun fact: water vapour is lighter than the air it replaces, and baseballs are reputed to fly better on humid days for this reason.

As far as I can see this means baseball fans understand buoyancy backwards. What’s fun about it?

• Yrogirg says:

I believe buoyancy is not the main effect due to air humidity. A baseball actually flies through the air, so there are aerodynamical forces acting upon it — drag and lift. Both of them are assumed to be proportional to the density of the ambient air. So if the ball is thrown without certain spinning (no lifting force) then it will fly further due to lower drag.

Or maybe the actual reason is that moist balls are heavier so they gain higher kinetic energy during the kick.

But anyway, one should better do a deep search in order to solve the riddle, no doubt there is somewhere a ‘theory of baseballs’.

2. John Baez says:

Over on Google Plus we were talking about this blog article and American politics. Dan Ghica made an interesting comment, which I’d like to respond to here. He said:

Unlike Perry or Bachmann I get global warming and CO2 (it’s not that complicated). Yet I feel that “Reduce CO2 emissions!” is such a difficult rallying cry to get behind. It’s like dieting. You don’t really know how much is enough, you don’t really know how helpful it is, and it’s so easy and tempting to cheat. On top of that you know that whatever you do, billions of people still will cheerfully carry on spewing out their CO2. But mostly it doesn’t feel right, it’s not in the spirit of the scientific and industrial revolutions of the last two hundred years or so. For the first time we are saying “Let’s backtrack” instead of saying “Lets move forward”.

I know that all attempts at taking a proactive approach towards dealing with global warming (things such as climate engineering) tend to be laughed at by the much more numerous proponents of the passive, conservationist approach, but I often wonder if it wouldn’t be an easier sell. I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to get people and governments behind active climate control and mitigations efforts rather than passive emission-reductive approaches.

• John Baez says:

Dan wrote:

It’s like dieting. You don’t really know how much is enough, you don’t really know how helpful it is…

We do know a bit about those things. However, the answer is rather scary, not at all the sort of thing most politicians have the guts to rally behind!

… and it’s so easy and tempting to cheat.

That’s a really big problem: the prisoner’s dilemma.

But mostly it doesn’t feel right, it’s not in the spirit of the scientific and industrial revolutions of the last two hundred years or so.

That’s true too. The sad thing is how many civilizations have collapsed because they’ve lacked the mental flexibility to say “What we’re used to doing – that no longer works. We need to do something new.” If you read Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, you’ll see this has happened over and over.

I know that all attempts at taking a proactive approach towards dealing with global warming (things such as climate engineering) tend to be laughed at by the much more numerous proponents of the passive, conservationist approach, but I often wonder if it wouldn’t be an easier sell.

I’m not sure “laughed at” is the right word: most environmentalists are terrified of geoengineering, because it means saying the old concept of “nature” has come to an end, deciding that it’s our job to control the climate, and making sure we don’t screw up.

For most ordinary people, as opposed to environmentalists, geoengineering will become an easy sell when weather disasters are widely seen as a clear and ever-growing menace. Then most ordinary people will want a “magic bullet” – a quick fix. At this point we’ll have to be very careful.

I increasingly suspect that we will need both geo-engineering and dramatic cuts in carbon emissions to keep our world a nice place. You might say this is the approach that everyone will hate: the environmentalists will hate the geo-engineering, while the “business as usual” crowd will hate the dramatic cuts. However, I don’t think there’s any solution that people will enjoy: not even doing nothing.

• Isn’t this vision so much more exciting: “All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.” :)

John von Neumann, the multi-talented mathematician extraordinaire at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, endorsed Zworykin’s view, writing to him, “I agree with you completely. This would provide a basis for scientific approach[es] to influencing the weather.” Using computer-generated predictions, von Neumann wrote, weather and climate systems “could be controlled, or at least directed, by the release of perfectly practical amounts of energy” or by “altering the absorption and reflection properties of the ground or the sea or the atmosphere.” It was a project that neatly fit von Neumann’s overall philosophy: “All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.”

(See http://bit.ly/qmI42D.)

I don’t think we should be terrified of geo-engineering. Many people were terrified by most forms of significant technological progress but in hindsight we can only be glad that they were not able to stop it.

Even so, reducing CO2 emission is itself a form of geo-engineering, just not a particularly exciting one. We believe that we know that if we do this then that will happen, and if we do that then the other thing will happen instead. And all this is on the basis of mathematical models running on computers rather than firsthand experience. I see no philosophical impediment in applying the same thinking to active climate control, where we examine the consequences of a whole raft of actions rather than a mere binary choice.

And I get your fear regarding failed civilizations. There is a real possibility that our civilization might fail. With people like Perry or Bachmann in charge I cannot say I am particularly optimistic. But the difference is not between moving forward versus moving back, but between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.

• John Baez says:

Dan wrote:

I don’t think we should be terrified of geo-engineering.

It’s scary because we don’t know if we’ll be good at deliberately manipulating the climate, and the stakes are high. But we need to weigh the risks of geoengineering against the risks against the risks of the various alternatives. Deliberately manipulating the climate poses lot of dangers, but thoughtlessly manipulating the climate, which we’re busily doing now, does too. Some mix of geoengineering and dramatically cutting carbon emissions may turn out to be the safest alternative, especially if we’re approaching a tipping point too rapidly for a slow cut in carbon emissions to save us.

Even so, reducing CO2 emission is itself a form of geo-engineering, just not a particularly exciting one..

I guess instead of arguing over the definition of “geoengineering” I’d prefer to make a little point:

We can consider 3 alternative strategies: cutting carbon emissions, actively sucking CO2 from the atmosphere, and taking other measures to actively cool the Earth. For simplicity suppose we do just one.

1) Cutting carbon emissions will slow the changes in the Earth’s climate, but it doesn’t reduce the CO2 concentration much on sub-century timescales, so it doesn’t bring the Earth back to earlier, pre-industrial conditions.

2) Sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere tends to bring the Earth back towards earlier conditions.

3) Actively cooling the planet while letting CO2 concentrations climb tends to bring the Earth to new conditions that have not been seen before.

So, very roughly, it’s a difference between “slowing down”, “going back”, and “taking a right turn into the unknown”.

This is one reason we might prefer to avoid purely pursuing the third strategy. Another reason is that purely pursuing any one of the three strategy may be more difficult and expensive than pursuing a mixture.

Unfortunately, all these calculations are clouded by the fact that many people have ideologies or philosophies that make them instantly reject one or more of the three options out of hand! I hope this ideological rigidity lessens as the situation gets worse, but it’s hard to tell.

• Coincidentally…

• Lauren Morello and ClimateWire, Geoengineering Too “Immature” to Combat Climate Change, Scientific American, 6 September 2011.

• John Baez says:

Dan wrote:

Isn’t this vision so much more exciting: “All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.”

I agree that it’s exciting. It excites the “techno-optimist” in me. It’s a vision of god-like power.

However, since the problem of global warming is largely political, you need to keep in mind that there are also “techno-pessimists” whose reaction to this vision will be very negative. Something like “we’ve screwed up everything we’ve tried to control—and now you want to control the Earth’s climate?

I have some of the techno-pessimist in me, as well as the techno-optimist, so I can see both sides of this issue. But a lot of people seem to be just one or the other. It seems that right now, a lot of techno-optimists don’t believe global warming is a problem at all, while a lot of environmentalists, who believe global warming is a problem, are techno-pessimists.

I like Stewart Brand because he’s aware of this problem and is trying to define a third position, which he calls ecopragmatism. Anyone who cares about the fate of the Earth should read his book:

• Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto, summary at Azimuth Library.

In an interview he says:

The shift that has happened in 40 years which mainly has to do with climate change. Forty years ago, I could say in the Whole Earth Catalog, “we are as gods, we might as well get good at it”. Photographs of earth from space had that god-like perspective.

What I’m saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it. Necessity comes from climate change, potentially disastrous for civilization. The planet will be okay, life will be okay. We will lose vast quantities of species, probably lose the rain forests if the climate keeps heating up. So it’s a global issue, a global phenomenon. It doesn’t happen in just one area. The planetary perspective now is not just aesthetic. It’s not just perspective. It’s actually a world-sized problem that will take world sized solutions that involves forms of governance we don’t have yet. It involves technologies we are just glimpsing. It involves what ecologists call ecosystem engineering. Beavers do it, earthworms do it. They don’t usually do it at a planetary scale. We have to do it at a planetary scale. A lot of sentiments and aesthetics of the environmental movement stand in the way of that.

• John Baez says:

John Armstrong wrote:

Coincidentally…

• Lauren Morello and ClimateWire, Geoengineering Too “Immature” to Combat Climate Change, Scientific American, 6 September 2011.

Thanks! For anyone too lazy to click the link, this is about a US Government Accounting Office (GAO) report. The report concludes that

Climate engineering technologies do not now offer a viable response to global climate change,

That makes perfect sense to me. I don’t know any responsible people who think we should start geoengineering right now. We need to study it. The GAO seems to agree:

In its report, GAO said that “the majority of experts we consulted support starting significant climate engineering research now.” But as it stands, geoengineering methods are “currently immature, with many potentially negative consequences,” the report adds.

It evaluated various methods for their “technological readiness”. Direct capture of carbon dioxide from the air ranked highest, but they said it would take decades for it to be ready for large-scale commercialization.

(Commercialization? That’s not exactly the word I would have picked.)

• Neel Krishnaswami says:

I thought that Diamond often claimed a much greater degree of scientific support for his examples in Collapse than which actually exists, and that sometimes the academic consensus flatly rejects his theories (e.g., that the Norse in Greenland did not fish).

Anyway, if you look at the enormous fraction of the biosphere’s primary production that humans use (something like a third of the Earth’s ice-free land area is devoted to agriculture), it’s obvious that the old concept of nature ended a long time ago. Our real choice isn’t whether we control the environment or not — it’s whether we decide to manage the consequences of our activities or to suffer the price for not doing so.

• John Baez says:

I know Diamond’s book is controversial. I know a lot of scholars complain that he’s taken a lot of of other people’s research and fit it together into nice stories while neglecting nuances. Nonetheless I think anyone interested in why societies collapse needs to read Collapse. Then, if you’re serious, read the references!

I hadn’t heard anyone disagree with his claim that the Norse in Greenland refused to fish! That was a very dramatic part of his chapter about Greenland, so if it’s false, it really hurts his case. It still might true, though, that the colonies in Greenland died out because they refused to emulate the Inuit.

Our real choice isn’t whether we control the environment or not — it’s whether we decide to manage the consequences of our activities or to suffer the price for not doing so.

I agree.

Our real choice isn’t whether we control the environment or not — it’s whether we decide to manage the consequences of our activities or to suffer the price for not doing so.

Unfortunately the consequences to be managed or the price to be paid is not necessarily automatically related to “we”. That is the prices to be paid are usually distributed differently. And people perceive differently.

For example, someone living at an endangered coast line may be more affected than someone who is cheering that his winters are getting warmer.

Some will even not realize that their suffering may be related to environmental problems. If for example the problems of a reinsurer (eventually due to unexpected climate disasters) initiate an avalanche of financial disasters, then I guess most will not attribute these financial consequences, or at least parts of it, to climate change but eventually come up with all sorts of other explanations (especially if they deny climate change).

• Boris Borcic says:

Dan wrote:

I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to get people and governments behind active climate control and mitigations efforts rather than passive emission-reductive approaches.

Saving polar bears could be a flagship case of active mitigation efforts. Save polar bears by feeding them penguins (but not all of them of course).

Because of their size and ecology, polar bears are the best candidate species for applying the works of the military industry to control the invasive potential of any displaced species by automated means.

Of course there already exists a venerable polar bear society rallying friends of polar bears, and of course one of its first tenets is that people shouldn’t think of relocating polar bears on the Antarctic (because of their clear invasive potential).

But on the other hand,

– there is no business at all on the poles (yet) so no “business as usual” to disrupt there.

– it seems wise to distract the military industry from its usual type of advertising campaigns before climate changes offers too much opportunity for such. If that industry is to ever deploy the terrifying “terminator”-like machinery it can’t help develop, I’d much rather see it happen on the Antarctic for a pacific reason.

– poles are already known as the scene of the most vigorous effects of climate change, so acting on matters “polar” is symbolic of taking on climate change.

– most of all, we earthlings are dearly in need of seeing ourselves address climate change in coordinated ways that make us feel like a willful active participant instead of just culprits. Acting pole-to-pole is a way to achieve global scale and proportioned symbolic impact, with minimal efforts – for geometric reasons actually.

Speaking of geometry and as a lightening conclusion, note how relocating polar bears to the Antarctic won’t damage the following riddle (transmitted to me by an actual pole – a polish citizen I can’t better credit – memory. Does anybody know its source?).

A bear starts south for a kilometer, then turns east for a kilometer, then north for a kilometer, and is at that moment returned to its starting point. What’s the color of the bear ?

• Boris Borcic writes,

… relocating polar bears to the Antarctic won’t damage the following riddle …

A bear starts south for a kilometer, then turns east for a kilometer, then north for a kilometer, and is at that moment returned to its starting point. What’s the color of the bear ?

Actually it does damage it, in the case where the southbound north-polar bear starts at the north pole and goes 1 km south, because if he or she then wants to turn east, this is possible.

If it’s happening in Antarctica, starting from the circle one mile north of the south pole, that first 1 km makes it not possible, being you’re at the pole, to go any direction but north. You cannot go east. There is no east.

Also, as a mere (north) polar bear, you’ll freeze.

Where did the riddle come from? Um … from two miles east of the east pole, I suppose, like the practice of referring to relatives of one’s common-law spouse as outlaws.

• Nathan Urban says:

The riddle doesn’t specify your starting point. It doesn’t have to be 1 km from the pole.

In Antartica, you can start $1+1/(2\pi)$ km north of the south pole, travel 1 km south, 1 km east (around a circle of circumference 1 km), and then 1 km north to return to the starting point. Or, more generally, start $1+1/(2\pi n)$ km north of the south pole, and do n circles.

3. utnapishtia says:

The problem is if it isn’t politically helpful to someone, regardless of what they believe, it will never make an appearance here. Recently Obama retreated on ozone standards, all in the name of lost jobs? (Who really knows except for the people behind closed doors.) The solution for this portion won’t happen until we have gov’t’s that are truly a gov’t for the people, by the people, and of the people.

You can make an argument that the planet is no different than your backyard, that I take care of my house so I don’t get infection or some type of disease, what is so different to that vs the planet…and they stare at you

The other major issue facing us with this is inertia. Any sort of “global” climate transition will have to deal with some sort of inertia. What I liken it is within my particular climate (update NY), the longest day of the year is in June, but historically the hottest week of the year is about 30 days after, the same thing with the shortest day of the year and the coldest week of the year… the problem here is it won’t take 30 days to catch up… or return back to “normal”.

I don’t know where it is headed, and I hate to sound like the guy beating the doomsday drum, but I personally believe anything sort of a global 100% commitment immediately that our future is somewhat bleak….

4. k4ntico says:

Helium is 10% more viscous than air, even though it is obviously lighter. Indeed water vapor is both lighter and less viscous than dry air, but that’s something of an accident, then.

5. John Baez says:

Only two states have not had disasters declared so far this year: Michigan and North Carolina.

• Mark Memmiott, What a year: disasters have been declared in all but two states, The Two-Way, National Public Radio, 13 September, 2011.

6. Boris Borcic says:

Prof Baez, I am astounded having to rewind so far back on your posts to the one which fits this comment – your productivity is incredible.

I just realized that a useful characterization of the anthropogenic climate change skepticism movement, is to view it as a sibling to intelligent design, and an emanation of the Bible Belt. Both have clearly much in common, and have started to openly mesh for about a year, apparently. A link here http://bit.ly/ewb4N8 and another there http://bit.ly/ipQoM4 . This does open the question of whether and how to address their common ground in the biblical text, imo, and that’s also why I feel the comment best fits this post of yours.

7. John Baez says:

Here is an update on the story in this blog post:

• Richard Harris, Researchers take stock of 2011 weather, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 11 July 2012.