A specific weather pattern may be largely responsible for the recent heavy rains in Texas and Oklahoma, but some experts say longer-term changes in the atmosphere could make such outbreaks more common.
The recent devastation is stark: as of the end of last week, torrential rains and tornadoes killed at least 17 people in the Southwest US, with the death toll expected to rise as authorities in Texas continue to search for about a dozen missing people. In Houston, record flooding damaged an estimated 4,000 structures, including homes and businesses, and led to about 1,000 calls for help, according to city officials.1
Texas Governor Greg Abbott expanded a state of emergency to 40 counties. As Aljazeera America reported, some of the worst hit areas of the region have received more than 18 inches of rain since the beginning of May – six times as much as the area typically receives.
As a proximate cause, scientists have said the heavy rains might signal that 2015 will be marked by El Nino, a warm phase in the equatorial Pacific Ocean characterized by intense, often dangerous storms, Aljazeera reported.
The Climate Prediction Center, which says El Nino occurs every two to seven years, has forecast an 80% chance that one will occur this year. If that’s the case, residents across the Southwest can expect intense weather.
However, Tom DiLiberto, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center, told Aljazeera that while the causes and effects of El Nino aren’t completely understood, scientists know that the weather phenomenon results from a coupling of oceanic and atmospheric conditions.
Though the ocean warming that causes El Nino may occur naturally, climate change, which is warming ocean temperatures globally, could intensify such storms, putting residents caught in their paths in even greater danger, according to Mark Crane, a professor of earth and climate sciences at Columbia University. “One of the things that happens with climate change — and is very clear — is that oceans have all gotten warmer.”
There is a possible upside, however. NOAA’s DiLiberto said that while El Nino and global warming may combine to direct severe storms toward the Southwest, drought-stricken California could see relief.
These recent storms are, for many, simply the latest manifestation of a global climate change issue that increasingly requires attention. Earlier this week, England’s Foreign Office climate envoy teamed with six other prominent scientists, businessmen and civil servants in trying to raise $150 billion to fight the problem over the next 10 years.2
According to the Financial Times, they want large countries to spend an average of 0.02% of gross domestic product a year for the next decade to encourage technical breakthroughs needed to make renewable electricity cheaper than coal by 2025.
Many companies are already on similar climate change-fighting paths. A portfolio of stocks of such companies comprises our Climate Change motif, which has gained 3.8% in the past month. In that same time, the S&P 500 has increased 0.4%.
Over the last 12 months, the motif has lost 0.2%; the S&P 500 is up 12%.
1Renee Lewis, “El Nino, climate change likely signposted in deadly Southwest storms,” america.aljazeera.com, May 27, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/27/el-nino-climate-change-linked-to-texas-storms.html, (accessed June 1, 2015).
2Pilita Clark, “$150bn needed to save world from climate change, warn scientists,” ft.com, June 1, 2015.