March 24, 2014

Not to sound churlish over the unremitting coverage of MH370, but we have a situation here with American lives very much being threatened and a rescue attempt that has a damn sight better chance of succeeding. So why are the 24 hour news channels still focused so much on Malaysia?

Could it be that the circumstances lend themselves to some inconvenient truths of the impact of global climate change hitting us right now?

The search for survivors of a deadly Washington state mudslide grew Monday to include scores of people who are still unaccounted for, raising fears that the deep muck could have claimed many more lives than the eight bodies found so far.

In a race to find loved ones, family members and neighbors used chain saws and their bare hands to dig through wreckage that was tangled by the mud into piles of filthy debris.

Authorities said they were looking for more than 100 people who had not been heard from since the disaster about 55 miles northeast of Seattle. They predicted that the number of missing would decline as more people are found safe. But the startling initial length of the list added to the anxieties two days after a mile-wide layer of soft earth crashed onto a cluster of homes at the bottom of a river valley.

"The situation is very grim," Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said, stressing that authorities are still in rescue mode and are holding out hope. But he noted: "We have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday."

After a very dry January and February (actually, rainfall was below normal since October 2013), Washington State has had an unusually wet March, logging the sixth wettest March since 1922, creating the perfect conditions for a devastating mudslide. And climatologists are warning that this may become more common:

Landslides are not unusual in Washington, but such a large one in close proximity to residences is more rare. Landslides cost the nation several billion dollars in damages annually according to the United States Geological Survey, and cause 25 to 50 deaths per year. The Pacific Northwest is predicted to get warmer and wetter according to climate change models, which will likely add to the economic and human costs associated with landslides in the region.

The average annual precipitation in Washington has increased by about one-third of an inch each decade since the beginning of the 20th century. Temperature averages have also increased about 1.5°F since 1920, with climate models projecting increases in annual temperature of, on average, 2.0°F by the 2020s, 3.2 °F by the 2040s, and 5.3°F by the 2080s.

“More extreme rain events –- the sudden and intense rain that we’ve been experiencing more frequently so a lot of the state routes are vulnerable to landslides today and the projections are that those will be worse,” Carol Lee Roalkvam, an environmental policy analyst with the Washington State Department of Transportation, told Oregon Public Broadcasting last year.

According to the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, in the near future climate change will cause the region to see less snowpack, earlier snowmelt, and more winter rainfall, leading to more landslides.

As I was writing this post, news reports announced the finding of six more bodies, raising the death toll to 14, though it has not been updated online. A press conference on the rescue efforts is scheduled for 6:30 pm Pacific.

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