Muggy Conditions, Buggy Coalitions, and Collegiate Ambitions
Heat, humidity, and mosquitoes and what climatologists predict for the future of the Northeast Region of the United States
This week’s post is coming to you from Avon, Connecticut as we’re about to head north to Maine. We’ve experienced some unseasonably humid days (and nights), a waiter serving bug spray in Cape Cod, and a hot and sticky college campus visit in Rhode Island. I can hear the locals now, “Welcome to New England.”
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WHATA WET SUMMA
I’ve become a weather wimp. Or, maybe I always have been. Summers in my native Iowa were hot and humid. I remember nights when the temperature would actually increase as I lay in bed, spread eagle, staring at the ceiling waiting for just a single puff of air to waft through my window. I’m not sure I was ever dry during those Iowa summer months.
Humidity makes me sweat more than most. I’m sweating just thinking about it. Perspiring makes me perspire. So you can imagine what I was thinking this week as I, with my family, were descending a long hill downtown Providence, Rhode Island, with air so thick and a sun so hot that it felt like I was walking on a treadmill in a steam bath with a heat lamp over my head. As we approached the banks of the Providence River, we read a sign on one of the buildings that that visitors of the Rhode Island School of Design should check-in at the admissions building. You guessed it, it was at the top of the hill we had just descended.
Just two steps up the hill and I had sweat gushing from my head. Part way we encounter a fountain. I soaked the cooling towel I tucked in my backpack and draped if over my skull and was rewarded with a cool tingling sensation down my neck. The bliss was short lived as we trudged up the final steps of the admissions building featuring a sweeping view of Providence and a sign on the door that read, “Closed”.
The Northeastern region of the United States is known for its humidity, but July has been unseasonably wet. This is good news for the one thing that everyone agrees is more dreaded during summer than humidity. Mosquitoes. Cape Cod has been hit hard, especially the small town of Wellfleet. The fleet of white vans marked with the name “Mosquito Squad” parked in a lot on the way in to town should be the first clue this area is prone to these ‘Swamp Angels’. The word mosquito is Spanish for ‘little gnat’. I prefer ‘mini-beast’. Bart Morris of the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project said, while spraying larvicide amidst clouds of mosquitoes, “This is about as bad as I've seen it…biblical in size.” Gabrielle Sakolsky has been with this organization since 1993 and she’s never seen a population boom like this. Dry air usually controls mosquito populations, but not this summer. It’s been a wild July in the Northeast. And it’s not over.
Cornell University’s Northeast Regional Climate Center reports all but two days of the first half of July included a flashflood somewhere in the region. July kicked off with a tornado in Delaware and a week later New York subways were flooded. Then came two days of Tropical Storm Elsa with severe thunderstorms and torrents of rain. Connecticut, where we are now, and Maine, where we’re headed next, were hit with five inches of rain and flash flooding. The coasts were slammed with 67 mile per hour winds while New Jersey whipped up another two tornados as winds howled over 100 miles per hour. Then, on July 12th, 10 inches of rain dowsed southeastern Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey causing major flash flooding. That’s a lot of extreme weather in less than two weeks. And a lot of moisture.
In the first 15 days of July, portions of the Northeast have seen rainfall that is 300% above normal. The Cornell climate center tracks 35 weather sites that stretch from West Virginia to the south to northern tip of Maine in Caribou, which actually was only at 57% of their normal rainfall. Boston was another story. They were 574% above normal. You can see why the mosquitoes were doing a happy dance in Cape Cod.
“Eight major climate sites experienced their wettest first half of July on record and another 17 of the sites ranked this July 1-15 period among their 20 wettest on record. In fact, for 12 of the major climate sites, it is already one of the 20 wettest Julys on record.”1
ABNORMAL MEMORIES OF NORMAL
It’s hard to know what normal is anymore. But the climate change explainers at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) remind us their analysis includes previous normal weather patterns. They adjust for the effects of climate change periodically and the last time they adjusted was 2011. That’s when the baseline for normal had shifted from the period starting in 1971 and ended in 2000. They created a handy map that demonstrates what plants and animals already knew – the planting zones across the United States had shifted north in latitude and up in elevation as normal temperatures warmed over that 30 year period.
The point of analyzing and reporting on weather normals is to reflect what is normal today, and not how the values have changed over time. So NOAA updates their models every decade or so to reflect the “new normal”. It turns out reporting and understanding temperature normals is easier than precipitation normals.
NOAA has collected 10 sets of these U.S Climate Normals dating back to 1901. The map below shows how the United States has warmed over the course of these ten segments of time. The blue zones are areas where the temperature was cooler than the 20th century average and the red zones are those areas warmer than average.
Looking at these maps tells the story anybody born between 1901-1940 will tell you – generally speaking, it used to be cooler. Though, unfortunately, they can’t really. It’s called generational amnesia and it inflicts all of us. As climate and energy writer David Roberts writes, reflecting the research from two researchers at Columbia: “”extremely hot summers” are 200 times more likely than 50 years ago. Did you know that? Can you feel it?” It’s also part of what is called shifting baseline syndrome. We can’t relate to the baselines of the past. That’s true for temperatures, plant and animal populations, and the more fickle baselines of precipitation.
NOAA’s same 10 time segments for U.S. Climate Normals for precipitation don’t show the same gradual nation-wide pattern temperatures do. Even before climate change, precipitation patterns varied greatly across different regions of the U.S. Unlike temperature normals, where we can say its generally getting warmer, we can’t say it’s generally getting wetter or dryer over time. We’re stuck with the more unsatisfactory answer, “It depends.”
Take the Southwest as an example. It’s easy to think it’s just been getting gradually drier, but it’s a mixed bag. For the first two sets, 1901-1930 and 1911-1940 it was wetter than the 20th Century average. And then the next four segments were dryer until the 1961-90 segment which shows a mix of wetter and dryer across a mix of zones. The two most recent periods, including 1981-2010, have been wetter than average. This regional precipitation variation is evident even in the Northeast precipitation numbers Cornell provided for the first half of July. Caribou, Maine was drier than usual while Boston blew the normal out of the proverbial water.
Given how dry and hot the Southwest has been, recency bias – the tendency to favor recent events over historic ones – will probably will keep people from believing that is true; before, that is, generational amnesia and baseline syndrome take over. But some weather events leave a lasting impression. As it did for my father-in-law, John Pappalardo, who grew up in Winsted, Connecticut.
In August of 1955, John’s sophomore year at the University of Connecticut on his way to becoming a dentist, the Mad River running through Winsted flooded. “There’s a reason we called it the Mad River”, John told me, as he recalled the images of the flood:
“Our two story house was flooded with water as high as the thermostat on the wall. We stayed up all night on the second floor as water ran down our street. It took a full day before someone came by in a boat, rowed in our front door, and rescued us from the staircase. But we were lucky, my friend’s house was split in half. You could see the dishes sitting in the cupboard from the street, just as they had left it.”
Two hurricanes in as many weeks had ripped through Southern New England. First came Hurricane Connie between August 11th to the 14th which dumped four to six inches in two days saturating the land with water. Then, three days later, on August 17th, came Hurricane Diane dumping nearly 20 inches of rain in two days. Both exceeded New England records. With the land already saturated with water from the first hurricane, the banks of the Mad River couldn’t contain the onslaught of water from the second. Thus began a cascade of flooding through Winsted, down the Mad River, and into the Farmington River – Connecticut’s largest tributary feeding into the Northeast’s largest river, the Connecticut River.
Stretching 410 miles long, the Connecticut River Basin stretches through four New England states; it forms the border of Vermont and New Hampshire and divides Massachusetts and Connecticut. The river provides 70% of the water to New England; 41% of which comes from Vermont, 30% from New Hampshire and Connecticut, and the remainder from another six New England states. It collects water as far north as the Canadian border and spills it into the Atlantic Ocean to the south at Long Island, New York. Like much of the Northeast, a lush tree canopy covers 80% of the basin. It’s health is vital to the Northeast Region making it a target of study for the effects of climate change on the region.
Laying awake at night here in Avon, Connecticut, tucked under a canopy of trees, saturated soil, and a mosquito dive-bombing my ears, the still presence of humidity surrounds my body and engulfs my mind. I contemplate animals like me sweating – perspiration; plants sweating – transpiration; and the soil sweating – evaporation. Just then, the rush of rustling leaves permeates the stagnant calm as buckets of rain come pouring down. Precipitation – the source of perspiration, transpiration, and evaporation.
The trees, like me, struggle to transpire amidst the invisible gaseous vapors of humidity – the most abundant greenhouse gas there is. Humidity is the measure of the amount of water vapor in the air and is a primary player in the water cycle – and in cooling the planet. Just as sweat pulls heat from our body to be transported to the air, humid water vapors suck water and heat from animals, plants, soil, lakes, streams, and puddles and ferries it around the globe.
Humidity is also invisible to the sun as radiation dances through the vapors and is absorbed by the earth. The soil in Avon is pregnant with fifteen days of record July rainfall and the sun’s stored energy radiates back into the atmosphere long after the sun has set; steaming me on the mattress like a plump white sticky bun. This nighttime reheating process explains why those hot Iowa nights would grow warmer as the night progressed. As the rich Iowa soil emanated stored heat, I wasn’t the only one sweating. So was the abundant Iowa corn. One acre of corn will transpire 3,000-4,000 gallons (11,400-15,100 liters) of water a day making significant contributions to the state’s humidity. Back here in Avon, the oak trees above me will contribute 40,000 gallons (151,000 liters) of water a year to the atmosphere. And I thought I sweat a lot.
Scientists will sometimes combine the measures, and the letters, of evaporation and transpiration to form the term: evapotranspiration. Global climate models tell us evapotranspiration increases 2% for every degree of warming. Given global precipitation amounts must be balanced by evapotranspiration under a warming planet, it follows that the world should be seeing less frequent and shorter durations of precipitation. That is, we should also be seeing more and longer periods of dry days so that the atmosphere can be replenished with water vapors from evapotranspiration.
But this is why it’s important to not just study the whole with aggregated data, but the highly variable parts as well with contextual data. Measures of specific regions can deviate significantly from a global mean. A 2014 study, quotes researchers from 2008 who “noted that over the period of 1895–1999, annual precipitation averaged over New England increased by 3.7% while the change of annual precipitation for individual states in New England varied between −12% and 29.5%.”
This same study compared various sections of the Connecticut River Basin for each season. They analyzed the evapotranspiration, surface runoff, baseflow (stream flow between precipitation events), and soil moisture and found data to “support the theory that extreme precipitation events are becoming more common in a warming world.” Their “results show a clear increase in precipitation intensity for the Connecticut River Basin in the latter half of the 20th Century and early 21st Century.” While being careful to note it’s not always the case, they also find it “interesting to note” that “as precipitation intensity increases, frequency of precipitation is likely to decrease.”
Another thing that kept me awake on that humid night in Connecticut was smoke. A good example of the nuanced and variable climate conditions regions can bring. Smoke from fires in drier areas of the Midwest United States, and parts of Canada and Pennsylvania drifted over the Northeast in a toxic smog that created an atmospheric red filter to the moon. A grim reminder of what may greet us in our return west to Seattle next week, through August, and well into October. Meanwhile, sorry Northeast, NOAA predicts “above normal precipitation is likely for the central and eastern Gulf Coast region and from the Appalachians to the Atlantic Coast” for August through October. Sounds like those mosquitoes will continue to do their happy dance.
But before we head home, we stop in Maine to visit my sister and a couple more schools. Then back to water logged Boston to board a giant jet-fueled mosquito headed back against the prevailing easterly winds to the dry west coast. I’ll be ready to dry out in the mosquito-free air of Kirkland, Washington. Minus the smoke, of course. I also need to water the soil around the baby native ferns, firs, and vine maples I’m nursing to health in my nearby Kirkland park. Water that will start a cycle of evapotranspiration that, when combined with my perspiration, will form water vapors headed for the sky joining clouds drifting in from the Pacific Ocean headed east for more record setting precipitation in New England. Perhaps next year, they’ll be joined by my kids too.