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Monthly Archive

El Niño Tracker - Nov 2015

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Originally published as part of the Nov 2015 CLIMAS Southwest Climate Outlook

El Niño conditions continued for a ninth straight month, and models continue to forecast a strong El Niño event that likely will last through spring 2016 and remain strong through the early part of the year. Forecasts focused on the persistence of sea-surface temperature (SST) anomalies (Figs.1–2) and weakened trade winds, enhanced convective activity in the central and eastern Pacific, and El Niño-related ocean-atmosphere coupling.

Image Source - Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Image Source - NOAA/NWS - Climate Prediction Center

On Nov 10, 2015, the Japan Meteorological Agency identified ongoing El Niño conditions in the equatorial Pacific, and in particular “remarkably above normal” SST anomalies and atmospheric convective activity, with projections that El Niño would remain in place through spring 2016. On Nov 10, 2015, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology maintained its tracker at official El Niño status, remarking on the persistent strength of oceanic and atmospheric indicators. On Nov 12, 2015, the NOAA-Climate Prediction Center (CPC) extended its El Niño advisory, and identified the current atmospheric and oceanic anomalies as reflecting “a strong and mature El Niño episode”.  Their models indicate the El Niño event will persist through winter, with a transition to ENSO neutral conditions by late spring or early summer. On Nov 19, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and CPC forecasts indicated that both sea surface temperature anomalies and atmospheric variables were indicative of a strong El Niño event, with consensus centering on strong El Niño conditions that might strengthen even more into early winter 2015-2016, before gradual weakening into spring 2016 (Fig. 3). 

Image Source - International Research Institute for Climate & Society

The North American multi-model ensemble currently shows a strong event extending into 2016 with gradual weakening heading into spring (Fig. 4). The ocean and atmosphere are indicative of a strong El Niño event that shows no sign of weakening, and current forecasts that have it pegged as one of the strongest events on record.  There is little doubt that El Niño will remain on the current trajectory in the near term, and we will see one of the top three strongest events on record since 1950.

Image Source - NOAA/NWS - Climate Prediction Center

What does this mean for the Southwest? Seasonal forecasts and past events suggest we should see well above-average cumulative precipitation totals over the cool season.  We should not expect a winter of daily rains, however, as there will likely be periods of inactivity between storms.  Looking at the 1997–1998 event—the strongest El Niño event on record—most of Arizona and New Mexico received above-average precipitation in December but below-normal precipitation for all of January before returning to normal or above-normal precipitation in February and March (Figs. 5–8).

Image Source - Western Regional Climate Center - WestWide Drought Tracker

Image Source - Western Regional Climate Center - WestWide Drought Tracker

Image Source - Western Regional Climate Center - WestWide Drought Tracker

Image Source - Western Regional Climate Center - WestWide Drought Tracker

In order to track this variability and provide data and analysis regarding possible impacts of El Niño on the Southwest, CLIMAS has created an El Niño hub. This is our repository for news and information about the expected impacts of El Niño, from the perspective of what is most relevant and applicable to the Southwest. This includes what we have learned from past El Niño events, and what forecasting and models can tell us about planning for the ongoing event.

Southwest Climate Outlook November 2015 - Climate Summary

Friday, November 20, 2015

Originally published as part of the Nov 2015 CLIMAS Southwest Climate Outlook

Precipitation: Over the past 30 days, much of Arizona and most of New Mexico recorded above-average precipitation (Fig. 1), as a number of storm systems brought moisture into the region. October rainfall was well above average across most of the southwestern U.S., with top 10 precipitation totals in Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada, and top 15 precipitation totals in Arizona (Fig. 2). November rainfall has been varied, with a mix of above and below-average precipitation.

Temperature: November has been cooler than average, particularly in Arizona and most of New Mexico (Fig. 3). These temperatures represent a stark change from October, which was warmer than average in both states. 2015 is set to rival 2014 as the warmest year on record, and we will watch to see whether early November reflects a short-term swing back towards ‘normal’ cooler winter temperatures, or whether the rest of 2015 will warm back up to make a run at the record.

Snowpack & Water Supply: Early season snowfall has resulted in some impressive values on snow water equivalent (SWE) percent of average maps (Fig. 4) but also highlights the variability of early season snow coverage across the West. It remains to be seen whether forecasted increases to winter storm activity will occur in the Southwest, and the role that temperature will play in terms of how precipitation will fall (snow vs. rain) and how long snowfall will last before being lost to runoff or sublimation.

Drought: Drought conditions remain across much of Arizona and small portions of eastern New Mexico (Fig. 5), but the above-average precipitation this fall and a near-average 2015 water year have helped scale back the intensity of drought characterizations across Arizona and New Mexico.  If the current El Niño event brings above-average winter precipitation to the Southwest, it will further help temper the effects of years of drought.

Tropical Storm Activity: In the second half of October, two major hurricanes, Olaf and Patricia, formed in the eastern Pacific Ocean; Patricia escalated to a category 5 storm and made landfall in Mexico.  As of Nov. 20, Rick is off the Pacific coast, and earlier models showed it had potential to push into the Southwest. The eastern Pacific tropical storm season has been very active, and the National Hurricane Center reported that accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) through the end of October was approximately 50 percent higher than the 1981–2010 median value. An above-average eastern Pacific tropical storm season was forecasted this year, with the strong El Niño event being a major component of that forecast.

Precipitation & Temperature Forecasts: The Nov. 19 NOAA-Climate Prediction Center seasonal outlook predicts above-average precipitation for most of the Southwest this fall into winter, with progressively increasing chances of above-average precipitation to the south (Fig. 6, top). Temperature forecasts are split, with elevated chances for above-average temperatures along the West Coast and extending to the western edge of Arizona, and increased chances for below-average temperatures centered over Texas and extending across most of southeastern New Mexico (Fig. 6, bottom).

Bhuwan Thapa - CLIMAS Climate & Society Fellow

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bhuwan Thapa is a 2015 CLIMAS Climate & Society Graduate Fellow. He and the other graduate fellows (C. Greene, E. Magrane, & V. Rountree) will present the results of their fellowship work on Friday Nov 20, at 10:30 a.m., in ENR2, Room 604.

Figure1: Community members in Tupche VDC, Nuwakot celebrating Rice Plantation Day within two months of the earthquake event (Source: B. Thapa, June 30, 2015)

How farmers are responding to Gorkha Earthquake, climatic and socioeconomic changes in Nepal

Following the Gorkha earthquake in April 2015, many able farmers in the hard-hit Nuwakot district came together and repaired the damaged irrigational canals. They contributed labor and financial resources and where necessary procured additional funding from government institutions. Though some systems could not be repaired immediately due to lack of human and financial resources, the farmers demonstrated the power of collective action in responding to national disasters.

One of the uniqueness of Nepalese irrigation system is the farmer-managed irrigation system where farmers take the responsibility of the overall irrigation management including operation and maintenance. Indeed during the field trip of summer 2015, I learned that these institutions were pivotal in responding to multiple stresses resulting from natural disasters, climatic and socioeconomic changes.

Over the years, stresses on agriculture and water management have materialized in various ways. The monsoon has become erratic causing unpredictable rainfall with variable timing and intensity. The crops are infected with new diseases due to agricultural practices and warmer temperature. The increase in labor price due to massive labor outmigration in Arab countries and high fertilizers price have made some crop varieties economically unviable. These changes have serious implications on irrigated agricultural productivity and wellbeing of thousands of farmers subsiding on agriculture.

In response, the farmers have addressed these challenges through different strategies. In order to supply additional water during shortages, they have installed water pumps to lift river water to up to 50 feet high and distribute through existing irrigation distribution system. In areas where augmenting additional water is not an option, farmers have switched to less water demanding crops. Most of the farmers now use hybrid varieties that produce high yield for less water.

These diverse interventions implemented by farmers have provided me with valuable insights on on-the-ground climate change adaptation.  When provided with right incentives and resources, farmers have demonstrated effective adaptive responses through structural and non-structural interventions. Some of the structural interventions included adoption of technology and hybrid seed varieties whereas non-structural interventions were the modifications of water management rules and changes in agricultural practices based on local knowledge. I have learned that the local level institutions with decentralized decision making can be the platform for adaptive responses. These institutions can be crucial for resiliency of irrigated agriculture because they empower the farmers and strengthen their capacity for timely response during crisis.

I have immensely benefited from knowledge-coproduction model that I applied in this research. I incorporated farmers’ group as the valuable partner with repository of local knowledge on adaptive responses. They shed light on multi-faceted dimensions of climate change and provided feedback on my findings which helped me align my research questions on the areas that are more relevant to them.

The research was conducted during summer of 2015 with support from CLIMAS fellowship and ICIMOD HI-AWARE project. Comprehensive study on climate resilient irrigated agriculture in Gandaki River Basin in Western Nepal will be conducted as a part of my PhD research funded by ICIMOD HI-AWARE project.

Eric Magrane - CLIMAS Climate & Society Fellow

Monday, November 16, 2015

Eric Magrane is a 2015 CLIMAS Climate & Society Graduate Fellow.  He and the other graduate fellows (C. Greene, V. Rountree, & B. Thapa) will present the results of their fellowship work on Friday Nov 20, at 10:30 a.m., in ENR2, Room 604.

Climate Change and Poetry

At the September 2014 United Nations Climate Summit in New York, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet from the Marshall Islands, performed a poem dedicated to her young daughter. The poem speaks of hope for the future in the midst of sea level rise for a homeland—standing just two meters above sea level—that is on the frontlines of climate change: 

no one’s drowning, baby
no one’s moving
no one’s losing
their homeland
no one’s gonna become
a climate change refugee

or should i say
no one else

As both a poet and a geographer, I think a lot about the work that poems like this do. Can poets and artists help us find ways forward in a changing world?

From planned arts events at the upcoming international climate conference in Paris to ongoing poetry forums in response to tragedies such as the gulf oil disaster—as just two examples—poets and artists are engaging in a vibrant and diverse response to climate change.

The poetic response to climate change will be the topic of an upcoming community course that I’m teaching for the University of Arizona Poetry Center this fall. In the course, we’ll read poetry and think about climate change. We’ll discuss how poems may reflect or complicate different ways of understanding the issue.  As I wrote in the course description, by blending readings of poetry with social and scientific readings of climate change, we’ll learn more about environmental poetry and about climate change, and we’ll think about how poetry and creativity may have a role in adapting to a warming world.

There is not one climate change; rather, there are many climate changes. This refers to both the physical science—the awareness that different regions will see different effects—as well as to the social perception of climate change. Alternate frames place it, for example, as an environmental justice issue, a national and global security issue, or an opportunity for social change. As recent provocative books and no less than the Pope have pointed out, climate change calls capitalism itself into question.

I believe that poems can help us to perceive these different frames of climate change in fresh and imaginative ways. Much like CLIMAS is a “boundary organization,” one that helps to bring together researchers with decision makers around climate change and its impacts in the southwest, poems can be “boundary objects” that help illuminate the issue. I think about the ending of my own poem, “Mesquite,” which imagines what the deep taproot of a mesquite tree might have to say to a room full of humans:

And I say, I will be ready
if the drought comes.

And I say, go deep
into the Earth.

And I say, go deep
into yourself, go deep
and be ready.

As climate change is projected to bring increased drought and wildfires to the southwest, the poem is a way into thinking about adaptation and resilience. In fact, I’m imagining the Climate Change & Poetry course itself in a similar way: as adaptive practice and experimentation in both communicating and re-imagining the ways that we approach climate change.

The Climate Change & Poetry course at the University of Arizona Poetry Center began on September 28 and continued through November 9. Sixty percent of course fees will be donated to Watershed Management Group, a local environmental nonprofit.

Eric Magrane is a 2015 CLIMAS Climate & Society Graduate Fellow, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Geography & Development, and Graduate Research Associate in the Institute of the Environment.

His poem “Mesquite” will be in The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, forthcoming from The University of Arizona Press. See the full poem here.

Christina Greene - CLIMAS Climate & Society Fellow

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Christina Greene is a 2015 CLIMAS Climate & Society Graduate Fellow.  She and the other graduate fellows (E. Magrane, V. Rountree, & B. Thapa) will present the results of their fellowship work on Friday Nov 20, at 10:30 a.m., in ENR2, Room 604.

Almonds, Fish, and a Modern Dust Bowl: Narratives of Drought Vulnerability and Adaptation in California's San Joaquin Valley

The plums were a deep red, their oozing juices staining the human-sized cardboard box in wine colored hues. Instead of being stacked in neat pyramids or ensconced in plastic, they were piled in by the hundreds, pressing against each other, their bursting flesh perfuming the air. We stood in two single file lines. At the front of the line, volunteers grabbed plums by the handful and thrust them into our outstretched white plastic bags, counting them out “dos, cuatro, ocho, doce, veinte!” I asked the gentleman in front of me in the line “What are plums called in Spanish?” He smiles at me from beneath his cowboy hat, “Ciruela.”

After all the plums have been bagged, we begin the process again with pallets of tomatoes, frozen chickens, rice, beans, and cucumbers. When all the food is packed and sorted into piles, we distribute them to the residents of this small rural city in California’s San Joaquin Valley where everyone’s job depends on agriculture.  Throughout the day I ask people about California’s drought – la sequía. They nod gravely, yes – la sequía.

“We have less hours in the field this year.”

“The harvest season is shorter by a few weeks.”

“My water bill is very high. So much money!”

“There are fewer hours at the packing plant – I am thinking of moving and joining a cousin in Chicago.”

For my CLIMAS fellowship I am researching the impacts of the California drought on the rural agricultural communities of the San Joaquin Valley. As agriculture is the major source of livelihood in these communities, there is great concern that the drought is impacting farmworker jobs and their ability to put food on the table. In response to the drought, the State of California allocated $25 million in drought relief food boxes to be distributed in communities with high numbers of farmworkers. By volunteering at food aid distributions and speaking with farmworkers, farmers, labor contractors, city officials, social service providers, and state government officials I am researching drought vulnerability.

Droughts occur when there is not enough water to meet the demands of a society or an environment. As droughts are both a physical and a social event, it is important to understand the human dimensions of drought – who is most impacted by the drought and what environmental, economic, and social factors are shaping drought vulnerability? In climate research, there are many different ways to define vulnerability. The IPCC defines vulnerability as the “The propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected” (IPCC, 2014).

To understand drought vulnerability in California, I am asking who is being impacted that is unable to cope and adapt to these impacts? How are they being impacted and how do factors such as the labor market, crop choices by farmers, social services, and migration shape drought vulnerability?

As debates in the media surge around how many gallons of water it takes to produce one almond or what percentage of water does agriculture consume, it is important to also examine the drought’s impacts on jobs and access to food and water for people living and working in the region that produces the majority of the country’s fruits and vegetables.


  • IPCC (2014) Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK and New York, USA.

Preparing for High Consequence, Low Probability Events: Heat Water & Energy in the Southwest

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Residents of the Intermountain Southwest are accustomed to hot temperatures. More than 90 percent of households in Arizona use air conditioning, which accounts for a quarter of the energy consumed in homes: more than four times the national average (U.S. Energy Information Administration).

Now imagine a scenario: It’s June, temperatures are normally over 100 degrees F, but a persistent heat wave causes temperatures to soar over 120 degrees F for several days in a row, with nighttime low temperatures at or near 100°F. Everyone is using their A/C, which overloads the system and results in an extended power outage. Now, not only is it scorching, but without power residents have no way to cool off in their homes. What’s more, the lack of power knocks out the wastewater treatment plant, and now residents lack potable water as well.

You may be thinking that this scenario is highly unlikely, and you’re right. But what if? What if over three million people in the Phoenix metro area lost power during a desiccating pre-monsoon heat wave? Or, what if this situation occurred in Las Vegas, where, in addition to a million residents, there are tourists who are unaccustomed to the heat? How do we plan for something like this? How do we manage the cascade of impacts?

These are the types of questions and scenarios discussed at a workshop, entitled “Preparing for High Consequence, Low Probability Events: Heat, Water & Energy in the Southwest,” held in September in the University of Arizona’s new ENR2 building, in Tucson. The heat-related theme was apt, as temperatures outside topped 100°F. The workshop, funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, brought together over 30 practitioners in water, energy, and emergency management with researchers, in order to improve connections across these sectors, while increasing knowledge about intersecting risks and research and management needs related to the heat-water-energy nexus in the Southwest U.S.

Talks by prestigious scientists and practitioners set the stage for lively discussions and working sessions. Among the talks were two case studies of cascading impact events in the recent past:

  • Daryl Slusher (Austin Water Utility, Assistant Director) described how drought in Texas in 2011 and 2012 drastically reduced water levels in many reservoirs, including the sole water supply for the City of Austin, leading to unprecedented water restrictions and power outages in some areas; and
  • Ronald Lane, (San Diego County, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer) discussed a 2011 power outage in San Diego that led to a cascade of impacts, including airport and school closures, transportation disruptions—because the power outage rendered gas station fuel pumps inoperable, and a major sewage spill due to the shutdown of a water and sewage pumping.

Participants, some of whom have managed weather-related crises, generated useful insights into planning and managing rare, but impact-filled cascades of events. One key insight was the need for using “possibilistic” as opposed to “probabilistic” thinking to improve communication with local communities; knowing about what is likely to happen (probabilistic) is useful, but in practice it does not lead to the type of preparation needed for rare, but potentially debilitating events. Some key discussions focused on:

  1. What does it take for organizations to learn after disasters? Critical lessons learned during crises are often forgotten, unless institutional mechanisms are in place to capture them. It took a second severe drought in less than a decade for Colorado to set up institutions to tackle simultaneous intersecting impacts (e.g., low water supply and multiple fire outbreaks), through routine pre-crisis planning and preparedness for multiple impacts. In contrast, earthquake-prone Los Angeles successfully mobilized public funding to reduce risks from future quakes by learning from an earlier Mexico City earthquake.
  2. As long-term temperature and precipitation trends increase the likelihood of acute high-impact events, what changes in planning are required to develop effective interventions? There are clear lines of responsibility for acute events, such as severe storms or floods, but no single lead agency is in charge of the added risk from long-term trends. This is an important direction in which researchers and practitioners can work together to reduce societal risk, even as exposure to risk (e.g., heat waves, lower water supply reliability, etc.) increases.
  3. How can we best coordinate multiple levels of disaster planning and response, in anticipation of high-impact, low probability events? While state and national-level coordination is essential, citizen- and neighborhood-level monitoring, knowledge, and social networks play key roles – but too little is known about those networks, their intrinsic preparedness and adaptability. 'Possibilistic' thinking across all of these levels of decision making and coordination is needed to maximize preparedness, reduce risk, and reduce the costs associated with disasters.

Workshop organizers will produce a workshop report by the end of November. In the meantime, a workshop agenda and PDFs of presentations can be found here.