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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Weather awareness stressed, global warming warnings issued

Florida Hazardous Weather week starts Monday, Feb. 23. No, not a week of horrendous weather, but a few days where federal, state, regional and local officials will focus on the perils of the Sunshine State's all-too-often extraordinary weather.

Each day will have a specific type of weather that will be addressed by students in some classes, and also by emergency management officials.

Monday's focus will be on lightning. Florida leads the nation in fatal lighting strikes, with July being the worst month. An average year will see 10 people struck and killed by lightning, with teenage boys leading the list demographic-wise.

Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties lead the state in fatal lightning strikes, with 32 people killed since 1959 in each region.

Rwanda, in Africa, is the "lightning capital of the world," by the way.

Officials tout the "30-30 rule" to avoid becoming a lightning statistic. Count the seconds between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. If the time is less than 30 seconds, lightning is a threat and cover should be sought immediately.

And after you hear the last roll of thunder, wait 30 minutes before you go outside. A few years ago, a prominent Sarasota attorney failed to follow that simple lesson and was struck and killed by lightning while walking on the beach on Siesta Key when he had thought a thunderstorm had passed.

Tuesday is the day to address hurricanes and flooding. We should all have learned of the dangers of hurricanes and hurricane safety tips - run away! - and the more recent advent of floodwater problems caused by strong storms.

There are a couple of extra tips, though, that are relatively new. A good rule of thumb to determine how much rainfall a hurricane will produce is to take 100 and divide it by the forward speed of the storm.

And another tip if flooding is possible is to make sure you've parked your car in such a way that you don't have to back up to get out of your driveway or garage. You can usually chug forward though high water in a vehicle, but if you have to back up, the water enters your exhaust pipe and you'll probably stall.

Of course, the experts warn you to never drive a vehicle through high water, good advice if you can heed it.

Wednesday is tornado day, complete with a statewide warning in the morning. The experts spare no absolutes on twisters: "Tornadoes are the most sudden, unpredictable and violent storms on earth," they said. June, July and August are our peak months for tornadoes, by the way.

Marine safety will be addressed Thursday. Rip currents aren't a huge issue in our part of the state but they do occur. Rips are like a zippy little river in the Gulf of Mexico that runs to or from the shore. If you're caught in one, relax and go with the flow until it dissipates, then swim up or down the beach a bit before you head back. If you're lucky, you'll catch another rip current that will carry you home.

And then don't go out again that day.

Rip currents in the Panhandle of Florida claimed something like a dozen people in just a few days last spring, and one at Bean Point last summer.

Extreme weather - heat, cold and sunburn - is Friday's topic. Perhaps due to global warming, temperatures have risen about one degree a year for the past few decades in Florida.

And the other extreme, cold, killed 26 people over Christmas 1989.

Be careful out there.

Fortune takes on weather
Fortune magazine had addressed global warming in its recent issue, and is touting some studies made by British researchers that were mentioned in "Sandscript" a few months back.

"Global warming, rather than causing gradual, centuries-spanning change, may be pushing the climate to a tipping point," David Stipp writes. "Growing evidence suggests the ocean-atmosphere system that controls the world's climate can lurch from one state to another in less than a decade - like a canoe that's gradually tilted until suddenly it flips over. Scientists don't know how close the system is to a critical threshold. But abrupt climate change may well occur in the not-too-distant future. If it does, the need to rapidly adapt may overwhelm many societies - thereby upsetting the geopolitical balance of power."

Warmer weather means more wildfires in the Western United States, droughts in Africa, monsoons in India heck, maybe even dogs and cats mating or frogs falling out of the sky. And its not just the usual environmentalists who are issuing the warnings this time.

Stipp writes that "In 2001, an international panel of climate experts concluded that there is increasingly strong evidence that most of the global warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities - mainly the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which release heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Indicators of the warming include shrinking Arctic ice, melting alpine glaciers, and markedly earlier springs at northerly latitudes. A few years ago such changes seemed signs of possible trouble for our kids or grandkids. Today they seem portents of a cataclysm that may not conveniently wait until we're history.

"In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report concluding that human activities could trigger abrupt change. Last year the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, included a session at which Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, urged policymakers to consider the implications of possible abrupt climate change within two decades."

What we thought would be a problem for our children or grandchildren to address may be something that we'll have to fix ourselves. It seems only fair, since global warming appears to be a problem we created.

... and now we're screwing up the reefs
A debate has raged for years regarding the decline of coral reefs in the Florida Keys. Scientists have wrestled with whether it's pollution or overfishing that is the main cause of the coral-smothering spread of seaweed on many reefs.

Now, Brian Lapointe and other researchers have determined that pollution from such sources as sewage and agricultural runoff is the main culprit of reef demise, a conclusion that has major repercussions for managers working to end the decline of reefs in South Florida and around the world.

In the current edition of the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, Lapointe said that seaweed, or macroalgae, spreads over coral reefs - a problem becoming increasingly common - it can smother coral and prevent important reef inhabitants such as fish and lobster from finding the food and shelter they require.

The reef that remains is transformed into a dull mound with little of its original vibrant life and color. The two main explanations for such overgrowth are that nutrients in pollution fuel rapid, explosive seaweed growth, or that overfishing and other problems remove key grazers such as fish or sea urchins that would normally feed on the seaweed, keeping its growth and spread in check.

"The reason this issue is so important is that we're losing our coral reefs at a very accelerated rate," Lapointe writes. "These systems are basically in catastrophic decline in many parts of the globe, and South Florida is probably losing coral even faster than other parts of the world. This research, I believe, makes it clear that one of the key problems is pollution from land-based sources."

Nitrogen, which is found in sewage, reaches a "critical threshold" for seaweed growth of about 14 parts per billion, above which damaging seaweed spread is supported and below which it is generally prevented. Raw sewage is about 40,000 parts per billion nitrogen, while pristine ocean waters would be about 1 part per billion.

Water from the Florida Everglades has very high nitrogen readings, and that water flows into Florida Bay and then across the Florida Keys. Lapointe said that current Everglades restoration plans, which call for a dramatic increase in the amount of this water released, do not call for reduction in nitrogen concentrations and could lead to even more destruction of coral reefs.

"It's clear we're going to have to reduce nitrogen inputs to Florida Bay if we're going to save downstream reefs in the Keys," he said.

Reminds me of the seaweed problems in Bishop Harbor of late.

Sandscript factoid
Most thunderstorms are about 15 miles wide and last about 30 minutes.

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