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Sunday, December 19, 2010

2010's world gone wild: Quakes, floods, blizzards

HOW EXTREME:

After strong early year blizzards — nicknamed Snowmageddon — paralyzed the U.S. mid-Atlantic and record snowfalls hit Russia and China, the temperature turned to broil.

The year may go down as the hottest on record worldwide or at the very least in the top three, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The average global temperature through the end of October was 58.53 degrees, a shade over the previous record of 2005, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Los Angeles had its hottest day in recorded history on Sept. 27: 113 degrees. In May, 129 set a record for Pakistan and may have been the hottest temperature recorded in an inhabited location.

In the U.S. Southeast, the year began with freezes in Florida that had cold-blooded iguanas becoming comatose and falling off trees. Then it became the hottest summer on record for the region. As the year ended, unusually cold weather was back in force.

Northern Australia had the wettest May-October on record, while the southwestern part of that country had its driest spell on record. And parts of the Amazon River basin struck by drought hit their lowest water levels in recorded history.

HOW COSTLY:

Disasters caused $222 billion in economic losses in 2010 — more than Hong Kong's economy — according to Swiss Re. That's more than usual, but not a record, Schraft said. That's because this year's disasters often struck poor areas without heavy insurance, such as Haiti.

Ghulam Ali's three-bedroom, one-story house in northwestern Pakistan collapsed during the floods. To rebuild, he had to borrow 50,000 rupees ($583) from friends and family. It's what many Pakistanis earn in half a year.

HOW WEIRD:

A volcano in Iceland paralyzed air traffic for days in Europe, disrupting travel for more than 7 million people. Other volcanoes in the Congo, Guatemala, Ecuador, the Philippines and Indonesia sent people scurrying for safety. New York City had a rare tornado.

A nearly 2-pound hailstone that was 8 inches in diameter fell in South Dakota in July to set a U.S. record. The storm that produced it was one of seven declared disasters for that state this year.

There was not much snow to start the Winter Olympics in a relatively balmy Vancouver, British Columbia, while the U.S. East Coast was snowbound.

In a 24-hour period in October, Indonesia got the trifecta of terra terror: a deadly magnitude 7.7 earthquake, a tsunami that killed more than 500 people and a volcano that caused more than 390,000 people to flee. That's after flooding, landslides and more quakes killed hundreds earlier in the year.

Even the extremes were extreme. This year started with a good sized El Nino weather oscillation that causes all sorts of extremes worldwide. Then later in the year, the world got the mirror image weather system with a strong La Nina, which causes a different set of extremes. Having a year with both a strong El Nino and La Nina is unusual.

And in the United States, FEMA declared a record number of major disasters, 79 as of Dec. 14. The average year has 34.

A list of day-by-day disasters in 2010 compiled by the AP runs 64 printed pages long.

"The extremes are changed in an extreme fashion," said Greg Holland, director of the earth system laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

For example, even though it sounds counterintuitive, global warming likely played a bit of a role in "Snowmageddon" earlier this year, Holland said. That's because with a warmer climate, there's more moisture in the air, which makes storms including blizzards, more intense, he said.

White House science adviser John Holdren said we should get used to climate disasters or do something about global warming: "The science is clear that we can expect more and more of these kinds of damaging events unless and until society's emissions of heat-trapping gases and particles are sharply reduced."

And that's just the "natural disasters." It was also a year of man-made technological catastrophes. BP's busted oil well caused 172 million gallons to gush into the Gulf of Mexico. Mining disasters — men trapped deep in the Earth — caused dozens of deaths in tragic collapses in West Virginia, China and New Zealand. The fortunate miners in Chile who survived 69 days underground provided the feel good story of the year.

In both technological and natural disasters, there's a common theme of "pushing the envelope," Olson said.

Colorado's Bilham said the world's population is moving into riskier megacities on fault zones and flood-prone areas. He figures that 400 million to 500 million people in the world live in large cities prone to major earthquakes.

A Haitian disaster will happen again, Bilham said: "It could be Algiers. it could be Tehran. It could be any one of a dozen cities."
2010's world gone wild: Quakes, floods, blizzards
By SETH BORENSTEIN and JULIE REED BELL, Associated Press Seth Borenstein And Julie Reed Bell, Associated Press – Sun Dec 19, 11:26 am ET


HT comment 127: Deborah Stark

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