Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Weather Impacts

Large-scale weather events in two countries half a world apart threaten to overshadow the other news of this week. In Australia, a category 5 cyclone will hit the Queensland coast with a broad area of high winds. Cyclone Yasi at this point could be compared in U.S. terms to Hurricane Andrew, which struck south of Miami in 1992, but Yasi is expected to expand and strengthen before it crosses the coast tomorrow, making it one of the most intense cyclones ever recorded in Australia.

In the United States, an unusually large storm is stretching from Arizona to Maine, with severe thunderstorms to the south, blizzard conditions to the north, and large areas of ice accumulation in between. What is especially noteworthy about this storm is the large area being affected — more than half of the United States, along with the major cities of eastern Canada. Usually, when ice and snow take out power lines, electric companies can call in extra help from other areas to restore power faster. That may not be possible this time.

One indication of the extent of the storm is the strain on the National Weather Service’s web site, which has been slowed down by the intense concern over the weather forecasts and warnings in areas that include half the people in the country.

In my local area, the latest forecast calls for 0.3 to 0.7 inches of ice accumulation. The 0.7 inch threshold is significant; that is the amount of ice that may begin to bring down ordinary utility lines, a worrisome scenario in which it may take power companies weeks to restore power to everyone. I can only hope that the ice will be less than this, but even with a lesser amount of ice, there is a significant chance that I could be without power for a day or so.

Media reports of these large-scale weather events don’t do justice to the economic disruptions they create. A lesser storm that hit the eastern United States just after Christmas was enough to ruin retailers’ sales reports for the month of December. In the worst-case scenario, the current storm could reduce the United States’ total production for the quarter by 2 percent, more than enough to cause hand-wringing among the people trying to manage the economy. And as for Queensland, it has already had the worst season of weather in its history this summer. With more high winds and flooding affecting most of the state in the coming days, it is fair to say that it will never be the same again.