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One Hundred Days of Solitude…Under the Sea

March 12, 2023

Ten Atmospheric Rivers...and Another on the Way

A strong atmospheric river last week caused heavy rain in many parts of California and brought more snow to higher elevations. The forecast has another to hit the state early this week. 

A storm darkens the sky at the mouth of the Russian River, north of Bodega Bay, Calif. The storm was driven largely by an "atmospheric river" over California. | Credit: NOAA

The recent atmospheric river was the tenth this winter. In some areas, heavy rain fell onto thick snow, making it dangerously heavy for structures and bringing the possibility of avalanches. There was flooding in Tulare and Kern counties.  In King City, closer to Monterey, nearly 13 inches of rain fell, and over ten inches fell in Palo Alto, according to the National Weather Service.

NOAA describes atmospheric rivers as long regions in the sky that transport water vapor from the tropics and carry an amount of moisture roughly the equivalent of the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Atmospheric rivers occur all over the world and are becoming both more frequent and more intense with climate change.  

A recently developed system ranks atmospheric rivers in a manner similar to the way hurricanes are categorized from AR-1 to AR-5, with the higher numbers meaning the storm lasts longer and carries more moisture. One local California news outlet reported that the rating for this latest atmospheric river was AR-3 , while earlier ones in December and January were AR-4. Last August, Pakistan suffered an AR-5 atmospheric river, which killed over a thousand people, displaced millions, and inundated one-third of the country. Not all atmospheric rivers are destructive, and the scale helps communities judge whether an approaching storm could be beneficial.

The drought in California, while not over, has eased a bit.  Still, 5.5 million people in the Golden State are experiencing drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Reservoirs statewide have been rising from the precipitation this year; however, managers had to release water from some of them to make room for forecasted rain and melting snow.

The atmospheric river scale was explained in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

After Three Years, Hasta La Vista, La Niña

While atmospheric rivers have brought heavy rains and snow to California, the weather phenomenon known as La Niña, which is blamed for worsening drought in the U.S. Southwest, is now gone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A warming El Niño event may develop in the coming months after three consecutive years of an unusually stubborn and protracted La Niña which influenced temperature and rainfall patterns in different parts of the world, according to a new Update from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published March 1.

La Niña conditions bring colder water to North and South America and pushes the jet stream north. The phenomenon can lead to a more severe hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean but the opposite in the Pacific. The Associated Press reports that it is clear La Niña conditions have ended after lasting for about three years, one of the longest periods on record.  Central Pacific waters were warmer in February. And an El Niño-like warming started on the coast.

If El Niño does form, it could mean the continuation of wet weather in California.  And it would also raise concerns over hotter global temperatures and heatwaves. CNN reports that 2022 was the warmest La Niña year on record, which means temperatures will likely climb as El Niño arrives.  

El Niño and La Niña are natural occurrences, but now they take place in the context of human-induced global warming, which makes rainfall and weather patterns more extreme.

Freddy—“Like a B-reel Movie That Never Ends”

Cyclone Freddy is one for the record books. The extremely rare storm—being described by meteorologists as “like a B-reel horror movie that never ends”—is likely the longest-lasting tropical cyclone in history.

Credit: Relief Web, the humanitarian information project of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

According to the World Meteorological Organization, on February 6—35 days ago—Freddy developed a few hundred kilometers off the northwest coast of Australia. From there, it set an extremely rare course more than 8,000 kilometers across the Indian Ocean moving east to west, a track that has only happened twice in recent history and both during La Niña years. It first made landfall in Madagascar and then spent several days over Mozambique and Zimbabwe, bringing heavy rains and flooding. It then pulled a U-turn and headed back towards Madagascar, picking up energy from the warm waters in the channel to slam the island again, which has had three times its monthly average of rainfall in just a week.

But it wasn’t done. On Saturday, March 11, Freddy boomeranged and headed back toward Mozambique, which has received more than one-year's worth of rainfall in the past month. United Nations humanitarian agency OCHA put Freddy's latest death toll at 28, 11 in Mozambique and 17 in Madagascar.

According to NASA, Freddy has set the record for having the highest accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) of any southern hemisphere storm in history. ACE is an index used to measure the total amount of wind energy associated with a tropical cyclone over its lifetime.

As to whether climate change is to blame for Freddy’s unusual behavior, the sixth IPCC report found that the Indian Ocean has warmed faster than the global average as it absorbs greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, which scientists say makes storms more intense—and perhaps, crazy.

If All Goes Well, Professor Hopes to Come Out Superhuman

One hundred days. That’s how long a man plans to live underwater off the coast of Florida—in the name of science. On March 1, Joseph Dituri, a retired Naval officer and now associate professor in Biomedical Engineering at the University of South Florida, submerged 30 feet below the ocean’s surface to live in the 100-square-foot Jules’ Undersea Lodge near Key Largo in a mission called Project Neptune 100.

Researcher Joseph Dituri will live 30 feet below the ocean's surface for 100 days.  | Credit: Cassidy Delamarter/The University of South Florida

During his stay, he will conduct marine experiments—and be the experiment—to study how the human body responds to long-term isolation and extreme pressure, all while continuing to teach classes online from his undersea abode.

During the three months, fellow aquanauts—divers who have stayed underwater for 24 hours—will join him at the lab that consists of two 13-foot-long tubes connected by a “wet room” where people go in and out of the water. The habitat can sleep four, has a toilet, shower, and a kitchen complete with coffee maker.

In a video interview with the media, Dituri says the goal goes beyond medical science or breaking the current record of 73 days under the sea. He hopes to encourage preservation and protection of marine environments and inspire young people to become ocean researchers, many of whom will visit him using scuba gear on school field trips.

Dituri is especially interested in hyperbaric medicine—100 percent oxygen treatment at greater than atmospheric pressure—and its success in treating fellow veterans dealing with PTSD or brain injury.

According to a university press release, Dituri will need to take vitamin D, given the lack of sun, and will undergo routine psychosocial, psychological, and medical tests, including blood panels and electrocardiograms, as well as stem cell measurements. Dituri said previous research showed that exposure to increased pressure underwater doubled the number of circulating stem cells and extended the length of telomeres that protect the ends of chromosomes, suggesting the potential to increase longevity and prevent diseases associated with aging. For that reason, Dituri says he hopes to come out “superhuman.” You can find out if he does by following his journey on his YouTube channel.

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