As floodwaters continue to rise along the lower Mississippi River, it's clear the slow-motion disaster will be among the costliest wintertime flood events in U.S. history. Officials are simply trying to tally the price tag.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Thursday that damage from the floods will top $1 billion. That number is likely to climb as the unpredictable and overflowing Mississippi continues its march south.
Over the weekend and into next week, floodwaters will continue to rise along the Mississippi River in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, including the cities of Greenville and Natchez, Miss., and Baton Rouge, according to AccuWeather. Minor-to-moderate flooding is possible south of Baton Rouge to New Orleans this month.
In recent weeks, the floods severely damaged homes, businesses and farms that line the Mississippi and its tributaries in Missouri and Illinois, where at least 25 deaths were blamed on the weather.
Once all the costs of lost business and damaged roads, bridges and public buildings are added up, it's a "safe bet" the total loss will exceed $1 billion, said Steve Bowen, a meteorologist with Aon Benfield, a global reinsurance firm based in London.
That estimate comes from preliminary damage assessment information from federal and local officials and on early insurance claims in affected areas.
For example, in and around the St. Louis area, floods have damaged or destroyed an estimated 7,100 structures, according to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, and at least a half-million tons of debris will need to be removed. Repairs to roads in St. Louis County will top $200 million.
In southwestern Missouri's Greene County, flood damage cost almost $1 million, according to the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.
Government officials are calculating damage in Illinois, where Gov. Bruce Rauner issued state disaster declarations for 23 counties, mainly in central and southern parts of the state.
Most of the costliest wintertime flood disasters on record occurred in the West. The highest price tags occurred with the California floods in 1995 that cost $5 billion, and the El Niño-driven West Coast floods in 1997 that cost $4 billion, Bowen said.
"That is what has made this current event so unique, since we don't expect this kind of flooding in the Midwest and Mississippi Valley until the spring," he said.
Missouri picked up almost three times its average rainfall in November and December, said Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau, Mo., set an all-time flood record of 48.86 feet last week, breaking a record set during the floods of 1993, the National Weather Service said.
The floods stem from heavy rains linked to El Niño and man-made climate change, Trenberth said. Such unusual rain and flooding at this time of year would have been outside the realm of possibility were it not for those outside factors, he said.
Greenland's massive ice sheet may be in more serious peril from climate change than scientists previously thought, a new study has found.
Studies agree that rising global temperatures are causing the ice sheet that covers most of the world's largest island to shrink. If the entire ice sheet were to melt, global sea levels could increase by as much as 23 feet.
But in a study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers found that global warming is also undermining the ability of Greenland's "firn" to limit the effects of climate change.
The firn is the sponge-like snow pack atop the ice sheet, which traps and stores melting water that would otherwise run off into the oceans. It thereby helps to maintain the ice sheet in the face of the usual summer's warmer temperatures.
Past studies had concluded that the firn's storage capability was largely undiminished. But Greenland endured exceptionally warm summers in 2010 and 2012 -- in the latter year, it experienced "the largest observed melt extent" on record.
Now the latest study has found that the firn has become denser and less porous, making it far less absorbent.
What happened? The researchers found that the greater amounts of meltwater from those warmer summers filled up the firn's pores and hardened into an impenetrable layer of ice. Consequently, meltwater in the following years couldn't be absorbed by the firn and "instead drained along the ice sheet surface toward the ocean."
As study author and York University researcher William Colgan explained in a press release, that finding "overturned the idea that firn can behave as a nearly bottomless sponge to absorb meltwater. Instead, we found that the meltwater storage capacity of the firn could be capped off relatively quickly."
The study is a reminder that we don't know all the ways that climate change is affecting our world.
"Basically our research shows that the firn reacts fast to a changing climate," said Horst Machguth, the lead researcher from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.
"Everybody wants to live here, I think, most of the time," said Linda Higgins.
We found Higgins pulling the Christmas lights off trees in her mom's front yard in Ocean Beach. The cottage sits on a thin strip of barrier island - just over a quarter-mile wide, bay to ocean. But Superstorm Sandy sent three feet of surf surging through the living room here, and tides in the back bay keep rising.
When asked if she ever expected the ocean levels would rise like this, Elsbeth Rapolla said, "No, I didn't. I really didn't. I came down here because I wanted all my grandchildren to enjoy the ocean. And they really have."
"I'm sure it is probably inevitable. The water levels are rising everywhere," said Karen Pitzner.
"The future for living here, I don't think, is, it's not going to be, some day. The water level's going to come up and that's going to be the end of the barrier island, you know. I can see somewhere, but it won't be in my lifetime," Higgins said.
Actually, it might. Interactive risk zone maps show a four-foot rise in ocean levels would overrun much of Ocean Beach. It's not a matter of if, but when, says University of Miami Professor Hal Wanless.
"Sea level will be rising at a foot per decade - and that's unbelievable, when you think about it," he said.
Critics call Wanless "Dr. Doom" because his climate change projections push the high end of the scientific scale: two feet by 2048, three feet by 2065 - 6.6 feet by the end of the century. New Jersey barrier islands would be under water.
"It would inundate it. It'll simply inundate it. By the time we're at three, four, five feet we're not going to be able to maintain beaches. And that's going to be within 50 years," Wanless said.
State Climatologist David Robinson more conservatively projects a three-foot rise by the end of the century. Even so, he said, "With the addition of storms on top of that, we've got big problems. Because a three-foot rise in sea level is akin to a storm surge in a minor to moderate coastal storm - not a Sandy, but many of the storms we've seen have done considerable damage along the coast."
After Sandy, New Jersey rushed to rebuild. The storm punched a hole through Mantoloking - washed an entire house into the bay. Now the road's repaired and the scar is a wide dune that defiantly confronts the ocean. Meanwhile, shore homeowners raised houses 10 feet and more above flood levels.
Nervous towns like Toms River bulldozed mounds of sand along the beach this winter, afraid Hurricane Joaquin would damage their costly renovations. Between state and federal grants and loans, New Jersey was allocated more than $13 billion after Sandy to repair homes, businesses and infrastructure.
"Once communities look at maintaining the infrastructure with each step of sea level rise, then you will start to look at the economics of doing that and it'll start to become clear when it's no longer economically feasible," Wanless said.
Wanless says living on these islands will become untenable long before they're under water. Even the Army Corps of Engineers' dune wall won't stop the inevitable, when storms turn increasingly violent, routinely damaging roads, bridges, sewage systems and power grids. Who will buy a home with a 30-year mortgage?
"It's a tough decision to say, no you're wasting your money. But when you think about it, and people, the hair goes up on the back of their necks when you say maybe we should be using part of the money to help people relocate. Well, yeah, maybe we should," Wanless said.
Cathy Bogdon just built a brand new, elevated house on a lagoon in Breezy Point.
"We should be fine. We're not worried. Not worried at all," she said. "Not concerned, love it down here."
"If I go over to the beach now and say, 'You can't have your house here, because 50 years from now it's going to be under water,' they'd stick me in the waves out in the ocean. It's difficult to get people excited about it," said Toms River Mayor Tom Kelaher.
Kelaher readily admits rising ocean levels will eventually swamp much of the town's real estate - and the Jersey Shore.
"Tourism is one of our biggest economic engines in New Jersey. People depend on the beaches, people's homes are over there, their savings are in these beach area places. To say you can't be there anymore would be absolutely devastating. So you're going to have to do that incrementally. I don't really have all the answers," he said.
"I just hope that the beach is here for a long time. I would hate to see it go. I'm getting emotional," Pitzner said. There's a lot of good memories. "Oh, yeah. Yeah. And for my kids and my grandkids."
This spring, Toms River will host several climate change experts to discuss steps they can take to deal with the impact of rising ocean levels. Imagine another six feet of ocean here. They say it is inevitable.
FRANKFURT, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Insurers paid out around $27 billion for natural disaster claims last year with weather causing 94 percent of incidents, underscoring the challenge posed by climate change, data from reinsurer Munich Re showed on Monday.
While the climate phenomenon known as 'El Niño' reduced the development of hurricanes in the North Atlantic, storms and floods still inflicted billions of dollars of damage in Europe and North America, the world's largest reinsurer said in an annual review.
Munich Re said floods in the UK and Scandinavia from storm "Desmond" early last month may cause about 700 million euros ($764 million) in claims, while later flooding from storm "Eva" in the UK may cause overall damage of more than 1 billion euros. Climate change may have played a role in the floods, it said.
Two tornado outbreaks and flooding also hit the United States hard last month but Munich Re said damage estimates were not yet available.
The insurance industry lobbied governments to take action to curb climate change in the run-up to the UN climate summit in Paris last year, citing both rising payouts in heavily-insured rich country markets and a lack of affordable insurance in developing countries where it is most needed.
"The proportion of insured losses for catastrophes in developing and emerging countries remains very low," said Munich Re board member Torsten Jeworrek.
"The insurance industry is exploring new avenues to close this gap in cover and thus to help people better cope with material losses after a catastrophe," Jeworrek said.
Munich Re participates in newly-established insurance pools to help Caribbean, Pacific Island and African states cope with weather related catastrophes.
Insurers and reinsurers may get a push from an international effort unveiled by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney to develop company disclosures so investors can assess companies' physical, liability and other risks from climate change.
"Quantification and disclosure of insurance risk has helped to drive reinsurance demand for the last 25 years," said John Cavanagh, Chief Executive at broker Willis Re.
The $27 billion in insured damage last year was lower than the $31 billion registered in 2014 and also below the 10-year average of $56 billion, Munich Re said.
Overall damage, including that not covered by insurance, was $90 billion last year, the lowest level since 2009.
In all, 23,000 people were killed in 2015, many in the Nepal earthquake in April. The total compared with 7,700 the previous year, but was well below the 10-year average of 68,000.
Lower claims payouts boost insurance industry profit but have a downside for reinsurers, whose insurance company clients often then demand lower prices for reinsurers' backing.
Willis Re said reinsurance prices continued to fall for contracts taking effect at the start of 2016 and that predictions of an end to the multi-year decline had proved illusory.
"The January renewals have unfortunately confounded the hopes of commentators that the market was reaching a pricing floor," Willis Re's Cavanagh said.
The review gave no claims figures for Munich Re itself. The reinsurer is due to report its results from the January renewals contracts with insurers, as well as its 2015 financial results, on Feb. 4. ($1 = 0.9159 euros)
El Nino greatly exacerbated the dry season in Indonesia last year, intensifying the country's already-challenging battle against raging forest fires and haze.
The El Niño of 1997-98 was the worst on record. It caused an estimated 23,000 deaths worldwide as widespread drought, flooding and other natural disasters rocked the globe.
The catastrophic weather system also caused the most devastating coral bleaching in recorded history, killing off about 16 percent of the world's reef systems. In the U.S., the total economic impact of that year's El Niño was between $10 billion and $25 billion.
Sounds bad? Well, according to NASA, we may now be facing an equally-destructive El Niño; one that's poised to only worsen in the first few months of 2016.
The weather system -- which has already wreaked havoc globally, contributing to the East Coast's balmy Christmas, deadly storms in the South and the worst floods in South America in 50 years -- "shows no signs of waning," NASA wrote on Dec. 29.
The agency added that the latest satellite image of this year's super El Niño "bears a striking resemblance to one from December 1997."
"The images show nearly identical, unusually high sea surface heights along the equator in the central and eastern Pacific: the signature of a big and powerful El Niño. Higher-than-normal sea surface heights are an indication that a thick layer of warm water is present," it wrote.
With the very worst of the droughts, flooding and other extreme weather events expected to come in the coming months, humanitarian organizations have expressed concern about the mounting needs of the world's most vulnerable.
Aid organization Oxfam International said that the effects of this year's El Niño are "set to put the world's humanitarian system under an unprecedented level of strain in 2016."
"The El Niño weather system could leave tens of millions of people facing hunger, water shortages and disease next year if early action isn't taken to prepare vulnerable people from its effects," the organization said in a Dec. 30 press release.
In Ethiopia, for example, an estimated 10.2 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2016, Oxfam said; while in Malawi, about 2.8 million people may require assistance before March.
In the U.S., the worst El Niño impacts can be expected in the early part of this year, said NASA.
For parts of the West Coast, however, this may be a boon more than bane. Matt Sitkowski, a weather producer at The Weather Channel, told NBC News that "wetter and stormier" conditions could be expected in drought-stricken California for the next two or three months.
"The East Coast could easily be affected, too. The 1997-1998 El Niño caused a crippling ice storm in New England and southeastern Canada," NBC wrote.
According to NASA, "El Niños are triggered when winds in the Pacific weaken or reverse direction, resulting in a warming of the ocean in the central and eastern Pacific, mainly along the Equator. Clouds and storms follow the warm water, altering jet stream paths and storm paths around the world."
Though El Niño isn't directly caused by climate change, scientists say global warming ups the intensity of the weather event.
December witnessed a spate of extreme global weather events, from deadly tornadoes in the southern U.S. to bushfires in Australia - and the latest development is a series of record-breaking floods in the United Kingdom, brought on by torrential rain starting in the first week of the month. Thousands of homes in the north of England are believed to have been affected already, and the region is reeling again from a new wave of flooding just brought in this week with the onset of Storm Frank.
There's been much discussion about the causes behind the surprising rash of winter storms in the region (Frank is the third major storm to hit within a month), and equal suspicion has fallen on the effects of climate change and the influences of this year's particularly potent El Niño event. It can be difficult to parse exactly what's going on, though.
Nicola Maxey, a press officer from the Met Office (the U.K.'s national weather service), noted in an email to The Washington Post that it was too early to say for sure whether climate change was a major contributor to this winter's extreme rainfall - but added that evidence from both physics and the study of weather systems suggests that it may have played a part.
The Met Office, in fact, recently published a report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society examining the causes behind dozens of extreme weather events in 2014, including similarly severe rainfall in the U.K. in the winter of 2013/2014. Using models, the report concluded that anthropogenic climate change likely had a hand in the extreme conditions that winter - the highest rainfall since 1931 - and that climate change increases the chances of extreme rainfall during a time period of 10 consecutive winter days by a factor of seven.
So while scientists frequently warn that individual weather events can't always be considered an indicator of long-term climatic patterns, the research in this case suggests that climate change is increasing the odds of extreme winter weather events in the U.K. This is in keeping with research from all over the world that suggests that extreme weather, in general, is likely to increase in frequency and intensity all around the world as a result of climate change.
"I think it is fair to conclude that human-caused climate change here too increased the flooding potential of the recent storms," said Michael Mann, distinguished professor of meteorology at Penn State University, in an email to The Post. "While climate change didn't 'cause' the storms themselves, it has increased the potential for heavy rainfall and flooding with these storms."
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Though the Mississippi River and its tributaries didn't top the 19 vulnerable levees that federal officials were monitoring, the dangers from a rare winter flood remained throughout Missouri and parts of Illinois on Wednesday.
Swollen rivers and streams pushed to near-record heights, which a day before caused an unknown number of inmates to be transferred out of an Illinois state prison and prompted a disaster declaration by Illinois' governor in seven counties and the activation of the National Guard by Missouri's governor to help divert traffic from submerged roads.
At least 20 deaths over several days in Missouri and Illinois were blamed on flooding, mostly involving vehicles that drove onto swamped roadways, and at least two people were still missing Wednesday. Some parts of interstates in Missouri reopened, while others were still covered by water.
In southwestern Missouri, residents of about 150 duplexes and homes in the tourist town of Branson had to evacuate Wednesday when flooding from a manmade lake threatened. But the shopping district along the lake was still open, Fire Chief Ted Martin said, adding, "it has been packed with people, and I don't know where all of them have come from."
Record flooding was projected in some Mississippi River towns after several days of torrential rain that also caused sewage to flow unfiltered into waterways.
The Meramec River near St. Louis was expected to get to more than 3 feet above the previous record by late this week.
The river on Tuesday spilled over the top of the levee at West Alton, Missouri, about 20 miles north of St. Louis. Mayor William Richter ordered any of the town's approximate 520 residents who had not already evacuated to get out of harm's way.
Across the river, in Alton, Illinois, dozens of volunteers helped place sandbags ahead of where water is expected to rise. Mayor Brant Walker said in a statement that flooding was expected at least in the basements of the downtown business district.
The normally docile Bourbeuse River reached the roofs of a McDonald's, QuikTrip and several other businesses in the eastern Missouri town of Union, where the river reached an all-time high Tuesday.
Interstate 44, which had been closed on and off for the past few days, was closed Wednesday in southwest St. Louis County, but the westbound side of the interstate near the central Missouri town of Rolla reopened. Hundreds of smaller roads and highways were also closed across the two states, and flood warnings were in effect.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon activated the National Guard to assist with security in evacuated areas and to help keep road closure sites clear.
In southern Illinois, the Department of Corrections transferred an unspecified number of inmates from a state prison to other locations because of flooding risks. The facility houses nearly 3,700 inmates.
In St. Louis, more than 500 volunteers turned out in blustery, cold conditions to fill sandbags where a flooded waterway threatened hundreds of homes. The city later trucked 1,500 of the sandbags south to a nearby county to fortify a wastewater treatment plant threatened by the swollen Big River.
The Mississippi River is expected to reach nearly 15 feet above flood stage on Thursday at St. Louis, which would be the second-worst flood on record, behind only the devastating 1993 flood.
The high water was blamed on the shutdown of a wastewater treatment plant on Monday just south of St. Louis, causing sewage to go directly into nearby rivers and streams. The Metropolitan Sewer District of St. Louis said the Fenton wastewater treatment plant, which is designed for 6.75 million gallons per day of flow, was treating nearly 24 million gallons per day at the time of the malfunction.
One of the two wastewater plants in Springfield, Missouri, also failed, allowing partially treated sewage to flow into a river.
The U.S. Coast Guard closed a 5-mile portion of the Mississippi River near St. Louis due to flooding. Capt. Martin Malloy cited high water levels and fast currents in the river, which is a vital transportation hub for barges that carry agricultural products and other goods.
The St. Louis area and surrounding region are bracing for record flood crests after days of record rainfall. US Highway 67 is seen completely submerged in West Alton.
In Granite City, Illinois, about 30 residents of a flooded trailer park idled in a Red Cross emergency shelter in a church basement. The park's property manager told Shirley Clark, 56, and other displaced residents that it could be another 10 to 12 days before they're able to return to their homes.
"We need help over here," said Clark, a diabetic who said she left behind her insulin supply. "We're just holding on."
What is going on with the weather?
With tornado outbreaks in the South, Christmas temperatures that sent trees into bloom in Central Park, drought in parts of Africa and historic floods drowning the old industrial cities of England, 2015 is closing with a string of weather anomalies all over the world.
The year, expected to be the hottest on record, may be over at midnight Thursday, but the trouble will not be. Rain in the central United States has been so heavy that major floods are beginning along the Mississippi River and are likely to intensify in coming weeks. California may lurch from drought to flood by late winter. Most serious, millions of people could be threatened by a developing food shortage in southern Africa.
Scientists say the most obvious suspect in the turmoil is the climate pattern called El Niño, in which the Pacific Ocean for the last few months has been dumping immense amounts of heat into the atmosphere. Because atmospheric waves can travel thousands of miles, the added heat and accompanying moisture have been playing havoc with the weather in many parts of the world.
But that natural pattern of variability is not the whole story. This El Niño, one of the strongest on record, comes atop a long-term heating of the planet caused by mankind's emissions of greenhouse gases. A large body of scientific evidence says those emissions are making certain kinds of extremes, such as heavy rainstorms and intense heat waves, more frequent.
Coincidence or not, every kind of trouble that the experts have been warning about for years seems to be occurring at once.
"As scientists, it's a little humbling that we've kind of been saying this for 20 years now, and it's not until people notice daffodils coming out in December that they start to say, 'Maybe they're right,' " said Myles R. Allen, a climate scientist at Oxford University in Britain.
Dr. Allen's group, in collaboration with American and Dutch researchers, recently completed a report calculating that extreme rainstorms in the British Isles in December had become about 40 percent more likely as a consequence of human emissions. That document - inspired by a storm in early December that dumped stupendous rains, including 13 inches on one town in 24 hours - was barely finished when the skies opened up again.
Emergency crews have since been scrambling to rescue people from flooded homes in Leeds, York and other cities. A dispute has erupted in Parliament about whether Britain is doing enough to prepare for a changing climate.
Dr. Allen does not believe that El Niño had much to do with the British flooding, based on historical evidence that the influence of the Pacific Ocean anomaly is fairly weak in that part of the world. In the Western Hemisphere, the strong El Niño is likely a bigger part of the explanation for the strange winter weather.
The northern tier of the United States is often warm during El Niño years, and indeed, weather forecasters months ago predicted such a pattern for this winter. But they did not go so far as to forecast that the temperature in Central Park on the day before Christmas would hit 72 degrees.
Matthew Rosencrans, head of forecast operations for the federal government's Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md., said that the El Niño was not the only natural factor at work. This winter, a climate pattern called the Arctic Oscillation is also keeping cold air bottled up in the high north, allowing heat and moisture to accumulate in the middle latitudes. That may be a factor in the recent heavy rains in states like Georgia and South Carolina, as well as in some of the other weather extremes, he said.
Scientists do not quite understand the connections, if any, between El Niño and variations in the Arctic Oscillation. They also do not fully understand how the combined effects of El Niño and human-induced warming are likely to play out over the coming decades.
Although El Niños occur every three to seven years, most of them are of moderate intensity. They form when the westward trade winds in the Pacific weaken, or even reverse direction. That shift leads to a dramatic warming of the surface waters in the eastern Pacific.
"Clouds and storms follow the warm water, pumping heat and moisture high into the overlying atmosphere," as NASA recently explained. "These changes alter jet stream paths and affect storm tracks all over the world."
The current El Niño is only the third powerful El Niño to have occurred in the era of satellites and other sophisticated weather observations. It is a small data set from which to try to draw broad conclusions, and experts said they would likely be working for months or years to understand what role El Niño and other factors played in the weather extremes of 2015.
It is already clear, though, that the year will be the hottest ever recorded at the surface of the planet, surpassing 2014 by a considerable margin. That is a function both of the short-term heat from the El Niño and the long-term warming from human emissions. In both the Atlantic and Pacific, the unusually warm ocean surface is throwing extra moisture into the air, said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
Storms over land can draw moisture from as far as 2,000 miles away, he said, so the warm ocean is likely influencing such events as the heavy rain in the Southeast, as well as the record number of strong hurricanes and typhoons that occurred this year in the Pacific basin, with devastating consequences for island nations like Vanuatu.
"The warmth means there is more fuel for these weather systems to feed upon," Dr. Trenberth said. "This is the sort of thing we will see more as we go decades into the future."