Unique Ocean Reports Offer Word to Wise About Weather : The data, gathered by UC Santa Barbara's Jim Kennett, cautions of an increasing climate for natural disasters.


Here's another weather report from Jim Kennett, who gets his data from out in the Pacific just like anybody else--but with a twist. From a drilling rig off Santa Cruz Island, he pulls up weather data from under the Pacific rather than from the clouds above it. And things look rough.

Earlier this year, Earthwatch reported that this professor of marine science at UC Santa Barbara had obtained raw data from the local ocean bottom, which indicated that, when global climate changes, it happens quickly.

"We're talking about a human lifetime," he explained, referring to the duration of a series of historic events he calls "flickers." On these occasions at various times over the last 20 millennia, the weather went crazy--most recently causing an event believed to have been the deluge of biblical times.

If you think such stuff is merely scholarship or fantasy, you're going to have to argue the matter with the insurance company actuaries who set the price of disaster insurance on your real estate. They're going to hike your premiums because they expect increased real estate damage claims. Even the U.S. Congress is worried about this prospect.

The hurricane season started in Florida this week--indecently early. Last month, we all saw TV footage of the rising waters in the Midwest--the second time in two years that a "hundred-year flood" has struck. Less than a week after I reported Kennett's comments on the increased chances of California flooding incidents, the South Bay area of L.A. County practically washed out to sea because of an unprecedented rainstorm. And it's quite distressing to have to recall the unprecedented river flooding and mud sliding that befell our own county in the ensuing months.

My point here is not to give Prof. Kennett credit for predicting disasters, but to emphasize the uniqueness of the data he and his colleagues have collected locally. Until they did it, there were no hard scientific ideas about how quickly things could go bad once they started to.

"Now we can't be in denial about it," Kennett said this week. He went on to say that folks had been thinking that at the least, they'd have a century to adjust to any changes.

There had been, since the 1970s, conflicting theories about the rate of whatever weather change we might be experiencing. Some folks thought maybe only polar ice-cap thickness "flickered." But Kennett's crew produced data that has been peer-reviewed and will be released in a forthcoming edition of the prestigious journal Nature. The data makes the case that the flickers encompass the whole globe when they happen.

Just last month, there were related stories about this in The Times and the New York Times. U.S. government figures came out indicating that the ocean inexplicably had risen a few inches in the last few years and "an increase in extreme weather appeared abruptly."

Why haven't there been front-page headlines about this? Maybe scholars and journalists have had difficulty getting their act together. The folks who collect your home insurance premiums--and don't want to go broke paying it out if you're flooded out or blown away--haven't been nit-picking. They're rushing into print--fine print, maybe, but making as much of an impact as any headline.

Anyone who's lately tried shopping for a mortgage and has to get any kind of disaster-insurance policy to cover it, already knows that such coverage has recently become expensive and scarce. Kennett's advice to real estate shoppers in potentially impacted areas is that they first check out the natural history of their proposed purchase.

"I'm a geologist, so I was able to walk [the boundaries of] my own lot," he said of his personal quest for evidence of past or potential natural damage, "but you can also talk to the neighbors" about your lot's history. Grill the real estate agent, too, and call insurance agents about the neighborhood. Or the Federal Emergency Management Agency at (800) 638-6620.

For those of us already settled into a property, here's news I pried out of Washington while checking out the implications of Kennett's data: Next week, the U.S. House of Representatives may begin considering a "Natural Disaster Protection Partnership Act." Its stated purpose is "an expanded federal program of hazard mitigation, relief and insurance against the risk of catastrophic natural disasters."

An earlier version, HR 2873, co-sponsored by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), unnoticed in the press and not passed in Congress, seems to have had the intention of keeping insurers from hiking prices or pulling out of threatened areas.

Things seem to be moving fast. Thanks for raising our awareness, Professor Jim.

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