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Synthesis/Regeneration 42   (Winter 2007)

Ultra-Storms, Trees and Urban Warming

by Don Fitz

As national news ran clips of hurricane-strength winds uprooting trees across St. Louis in July 2006, many commentators spoke of the awesome power of nature. But that storm was not an act of god. It was an act of Exxon-Mobil and its friends. And they are not gods, even if they are treated as such by the White House.

Where were the warnings?

At 6:30 pm the evening of July 19, I get to the Green Party office. As I suspect, no one has turned on the air conditioner and the thermostat is at its maximum reading of 95 degrees. I plug it in and head outside to eat in the shade. By 7 pm, it’s cooled to 89 degrees and people have arrived to discuss our strategy on lead poisoning.

About 30 minutes later, Jasmine looks out the window, asking, “Have you seen that? I think we need to go to the basement.” Peering out, I see that blue skies with fluffy white clouds have turned to dark grey in a matter of minutes. Trash is blowing in a weird way — not in a whirlwind but in a big circle, maybe 30 or 40 feet in diameter. Rick’s daughter, Bethany, is scared and wants to go to the basement too.

“Okay, here’s my flashlight for everyone who wants to go downstairs.” I hand it to them, glad that enough are staying to finish the letter to Lead Safe St. Louis.

Ziah comes in, apologizing for being late. “Sorry, but I had to drive around branches that were all over the street. A tree fell right behind my car just a few blocks from here. It would have hit me if I had come a few seconds later.”

As we talk about potential allies against lead poisoning, the air conditioner and one light go out. A few minutes later the last light goes out and there is a general exodus.

I gather up the Greens’ newsletter, the Compost-Dispatch that we were going to mail and head to the first floor. Jasmine, digger and I sit in the doorway folding and stapling newsletters. Tinker, an eight year old from the neighborhood, comes in and shows us her skill at putting on stamps. Cops go by asking if anyone has been hurt while city chain saw crews remove trees from Cherokee Street.

The storm didn’t seem real until it was over, maybe 30 minutes later. Needing to know if my organic garden needs water, I carefully watch the weather reports. But I couldn’t remember any storm warnings. At home with no electricity, I look through the July 19 St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the forecast: “Humidity will be very high and the excessive heat warning remains in effect.” Nothing about the possibility of a storm, not even a mention of rain or wind in the forecast.

Nothing about the possibility of a storm, not even a mention of rain or wind in the forecast.

Talking to Roger Hill, a meteorological consultant for Weathering Heights in Worcester, Vermont, I said that during my 30 plus years in St. Louis I had never seen such extreme weather with no warning at all. He jumped in, “If you are wondering if it’s part of global warming, the answer is yes.”

He explained that storms are a balancing of energy between the rising of low-lying, humid warm air and the sinking of colder air. Extra warmth makes the balancing more extreme. The ongoing warming of the earth causes stronger upward and downward motions of air masses, which results in more violent wind and rain. Hill, who does weather forecasting for five radio stations, reminded me that global warming will result in more erratic fluctuations between the extremes of drought and excessive storms.

Even though my house was left without power by Wednesday’s storm, nothing was damaged. That changed as the second storm swept through Friday morning. As I was paying bills on the front porch, the sky again changed from blue to grey and rain started with little warning. I grabbed my checkbook as the increasing wind tried to pull it away from me. Shutting my windows, I saw that two enormous branches had fallen from the maple tree into the garden. In a few seconds, months of planting, weeding and tending was gone. Beans had been growing on one of the three fences that were torn down. Heirloom tomatoes, peppers, chard, basil and carrots were under branches.

… the electric company estimated that 1.1 million customers lost power …

My woes were small compared to those who had roofs torn off, suffered from heat exhaustion, or were electrocuted from dangling wires. The original estimate of 490,000 customers losing electricity on Wednesday was increased to 570,000 by Thursday. That day, the electric company received over 40,000 calls per hour. After Friday’s storm, the electric company estimated that 1.1 million customers lost power at some point during the three days. On Wednesday, 55% of St. Louis was without power. By Friday, over 75% of the nearby communities of Florissant and Granite City had lost power. In Jennings, it was over 90%.

The unspoken phrase

Everyone agreed that it was the most damaging storm system ever to hit St. Louis. And there was zero warning 12 hours before the first blast arrived. The second most destructive storm in St. Louis history saw 217,000 people without power. That was in August 2005.

Though the two worst storms in St. Louis history happened within the last 11 months, the phrase “global warming” did not appear in corporate media. I did not hear it on the radio or see it in dozens of newspaper stories or TV broadcasts.

The single explanation of the storm was that it was a “gust front” resulting from a combination of hot, moist air from south of St. Louis and cool air pooled in north central Illinois. No media analysis probed why it was so intense, unpredicted, and the second in two years. Media stories were limited to human suffering and relief efforts.

The incredible number of downed trees permeated every media story. Everywhere you looked, tree limbs were all over the streets and on cars and houses.

Devin Ceartas is a long time activist with the environmental group Heartwood who has an amazingly broad scientific understanding. He confirmed my suspicion that the tendency for cities to have higher temperatures than surrounding areas is that they have fewer trees and more concrete, asphalt and brick that absorb heat.

But he added something important about forests. Ceartas pointed out that, “When strong winds hit a forest, the edge is damaged far more than the center. Trees act as a break on strong wind. Like a forest, a city could have stronger protection from high winds if it had dense growth of trees.”

This suggests that global warming feeds upon itself in cities. Cities not only suffer the increased heat that the rest of the world does, but accumulate heat because of their high concrete to tree ratio. As storms down urban trees, the concrete to tree ratio rises even more, making the city hotter. With less shade from trees, there is more reliance on air conditioning, which spews hot air outside as the interior of the building is cooled. The greater heat contributes to more storms that fell more trees, increase the temperature, and so on.

Cities … accumulate heat because of their high concrete to tree ratio.

Jim Scheff is a biology instructor at a local university and coordinator for the Missouri Forest Alliance. He is not so sure of Ceartas’ suggestion that trees could grow thick enough in a city to act as a windbreak. But he strongly emphasizes the importance of vegetation in lowering urban temperatures.

Scheff explains. “It’s similar to how your bare feet feel like they are burning when you stand on asphalt, and then feel fine if you move to grass. That’s because the two surfaces do very different things to solar radiation. Sunlight is not direct heat. Dark surfaces, like asphalt, convert sunlight to heat. Light surfaces reflect more solar energy back into the environment instead of absorbing it. But vegetation is more complex, and converts some of that sunlight through photosynthesis. And, perhaps more importantly, trees offer shade. This is why trees, grass and shrubs can be so critical in lowering urban temperature.”

While one type of protection from storm damage would be to create as dense tree coverage as possible, a couple of factors weigh against it. Hurricane-force winds such as St. Louis received create a powerful incentive to cut down trees anywhere near a power line. Second, one of the casualties of the St. Louis storm was the large number of 50 to 100 year old trees that came down.

… the phrase “global warming” was more studiously avoided than during discussions following Katrina.

Politicians who are anxious to boast that “Everything’s back to the way it was!” seem incapable of comprehending that it takes 50 to 100 years to replace a 50 to 100 year old tree. Estimates in August suggested that 15% of St. Louis trees were damaged or destroyed by the July storms.

During the week following the storms, several themes were noticeable by their absence in the St. Louis press. Of course, the phrase “global warming” was more studiously avoided than during discussions following Katrina. Similarly, there was an exclusive focus on the danger of trees with no mention of their value in lowering urban temperatures.

An interesting change occurred in the reporting of water main breaks. An early listing of storm damages described how bursts and cracks in water supply pipes had been caused by electrical fluctuations after power returned to pumping stations. This explanation was curiously absent from reports of a massive water main break following the second storm.

On Friday evening, water flooded the basement of the St. Louis Science Center and forced the closure of Interstate 64. Coverage of motorboats being used to survey the damage reported it as an unrelated story and made no effort to explore whether it could be related to the storms.

The ultra-storm

Let’s go over some of the storm-related events in St. Louis, but not as something in the past which is over and done with. Instead, visualize them in the present, as what is likely to happen in cities during the more intense and more frequent events caused by global warming that could be called “ultra-storms.”

Something very important for St. Louis is left out of the above list because it may not happen in future ultra-storms. Though over 100,000 people were still without power a week after the first hit, the repair that occurred was due to electrical company employees from at least nine states coming to St. Louis. As ultra-storms become more common, it is very likely that there won’t be nine states able to send in repair crews because they will be doing repairs from their own ultra-storm.

At precisely the time that we need to be talking about fundamentally new economic courses to stop global warming, the media is downplaying the source of the problem and politicians are offering lifestyle changes like fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars. We need to be discussing and adopting dramatic new modes of home design with 90% reduction in heating and cooling needs, a massive decrease in automobile existence, and, most important, a reduction in wasteful energy consumption by basic industry. (i.e., Do there really need to be huge insurance company buildings?)

We need to be discussing and adopting dramatic new modes of home design with 90% reduction in heating and cooling needs …

Nowhere is this more apparent than the War for Oil. The US squanders massive energy in military production and transportation of troops across the globe to steal oil from Iraq so that massive amounts of fossil fuels can be fed to US cars. Meanwhile, New Orleans is flattened by a hurricane intensified by the heating of the Gulf of Mexico — caused largely by burning fossil fuels — and the National Guard can’t help because it’s off stealing oil to feed cars that will increase global warming. The positive feedback loops are never ending.

The Democrats and Republicans are in solid agreement that the international plundering of oil should be a top priority of the US. The only thing they quibble about is whether it should be done unilaterally by brute force or done diplomatically to share the booty with more allies. The St. Louis ultra-storm is proof that the corporate parties are unable to conceptualize, much less implement, actions that are needed to keep this planet alive.

Don Fitz produces Green Time TV in St. Louis. He can be reached at fitzdon@aol.com

[24 feb 07]

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