Daniel Gonzales went online last week in search for someplace to live, asking Galveston residents whether anyone knew of a garage apartment he and his wife could rent for a few months.

Gonzales’ Webster home is almost unrecognizable — contractors told him it could be three or four more months before all the damage from the February winter storm is fixed, and that’s only after he’d dropped about $60,000 on repairs, he said.

“I’m completely gutted right now,” he said.

Gonzales has heard the favorite mantra of state and local leaders that the February freeze was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it doesn’t ring quite true to him.

For Gonzales and many other residents and leaders in Galveston County who have now lived through the freeze and other devastating tempests such as Hurricane Harvey, it seems these events aren’t so rare.

“We’ve had three 500-year storms in five years,” said Jeff Patterson, a Galveston resident who has long been active in discussions about coastal resiliency. “You can argue about the specific reasons for that, but the climate is changing.”

The science has long been clear that our changing climate will lead to more flooding and hotter summer temperatures. But might climate change also lead to other, less expected extreme weather, including sudden hard freezes in places like Texas, with increasing frequency?

Experts think the answer is yes.

A WEAKENING POLAR VORTEX

More extreme climate events aren’t only possible, they’re very likely, according to major scientific reports such as the most recent global climate assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Fourth National Climate Assessment by the United States government, which highlights expected global warming effects on South Texas and the wider region.

Sea-level rise on the Texas Coast already has increased by 5 inches to 17 inches in the past 100 years and is likely to rise “more than the projected global average of 1-4 feet or more,” through 2100, according to the 2018 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The number of 100-degree days will increase dramatically, and “the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events are anticipated to continue to increase.”

Deep freezes haven’t been studied as much as some other extreme events linked with global warming, but there is “definitely a school of thought that climate change is contributing to an increase in cold snaps, through a weakening of the polar vortex, which normally traps the coldest air masses in the Arctic,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University.

The Arctic polar vortex is a belt of fast, high-elevation winds usually cinched tightly around the Arctic during the winter. But the vortex buckles and sags south when warmer air from the Earth’s surface bulges up into the atmosphere above the Arctic to push cold air down to lower elevations and more southerly latitudes. There is a similar wind system in the Southern Hemisphere during Austral winter.

The polar vortex also influences the storm-steering polar jet stream, another belt of winds a bit farther south and lower in the atmosphere. Both are driven by the contrast between very cold temperatures in the Arctic and warmer temperatures farther south, Mann said. Scientists still are studying how much, and when, global warming affects the complex wind systems, and how to tell those effects apart from seasonal climate variability.

One area of research shows “amplified Arctic warming reduces the temperature contrast between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes,” he said. “Since it’s this temperature contrast that’s responsible for the jet stream in the first place, that in turn leads to a weakening of the jet stream and a weakening of the polar vortex,” that spills cold air southward, Mann said.

SHRINKING DOUBT

In recent climate reports, scientists have started issuing more straightforward warnings about how global warming already is causing dangerous extremes, probably because “science is advancing to the point where we can make quite quantitative and qualitative statements about the impacts of climate change,” said Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University.

Such attribution science shows how global warming intensifies some weather extremes, or makes them more likely, and some of that research says clearly that, “Unusual cold spells can occur even in a warming world and cause disruption to transport, energy and food supplies.”

“In that sense, science has indeed passed a threshold,” he said. “We are no longer stuck saying, ‘No particular event can be said to be caused by climate change.’ We can now say, ‘Yes, climate change made this storm worse than it would otherwise have been.’”

“In years past, I think there was a reticence to taking a strong stand on this subject, but a combination of strengthening science combined with a true lack of progress on policies has convinced scientists that we need to speak up,” Dessler said. “This is particularly true among younger scientists, and I commend them for it.”

NO ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES

Just as the saying argues there are no atheists in foxholes, local officials were unanimous in their acknowledgment that the climate is changing and that any viable mitigation policy must factor that into the data and analysis.

“An afternoon rain shower has three times as much rain as it did previously,” Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell said. “Winters are more extreme. Whether it’s hot or cold, there’s no moderation in climate anymore. It’s kind of the new normal.”

Almost two months have passed since plunging temperatures led to the near total collapse of the state’s power grid, and still there are far more questions than answers about what might change and how state leaders plan to prevent future disasters like the one in February, when millions of Texans lost power and more people died than in hurricanes Ike and Harvey — at least 111 by the most recent count.

During the coldest days of the winter storm, the wholesale price of electricity skyrocketed to almost $9,000 a megawatt hour from less than $50 before the storm.

In the Texas Legislature, a plan to readjust that electricity pricing — a move that might save money for those who purchased on the wholesale market — stalled in the House, spurring Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to ask Gov. Greg Abbott to take executive action, according to The Texas Tribune.

POLICY OF PRETEND

It’s not yet clear where consensus is emerging among the experts who have pointed at myriad issues that contributed to February’s disaster. But even amid the uncertainty, one thing is clear, according to Galveston County residents. The recent trend of pretending this is a once-in-a-lifetime event no longer will work.

“None of this is easy,” Patterson said. “You’re talking about big money and big investments. With climate change, you’re going to have more frequent freezes, bigger storms and heavier rainfall. Doing nothing is not a good option.”

‘FRANKLY DELUSIONAL’

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classified the Texas freeze as 2021’s first billion-dollar disaster in the United States, but it won’t be the last. In 2020, there were 22 weather and climate disasters that cost that much, including a dense cluster in and around Texas.

“As we take into account climate change, among other factors that are increasing our risk across the country, it’s likely these larger-scale disasters will become more frequent,” said Samantha Montano, a disaster researcher and assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

“This idea that something is a once-in-a-lifetime event is a very dangerous way of thinking about risk,” Montano said. “We need to be thinking about risk more holistically. Texas, especially East Texas, they have just had one disaster after another the last decade or so. And the idea that they aren’t going to have another situation where they lose power for an extended period of time strikes me as, frankly, delusional.”

The increasing frequency of such disasters raises concerns about the nation’s capacity to respond to a catastrophic combination of events, such as in 2017, when hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck over the span of just two months, while massive wildfires burned in California about the same time, she said.

STRETCHED THIN

A subsequent report from the federal General Accounting Office showed the Federal Emergency Management Agency ran short of trained staff to respond to that many disasters, Montano said. The report concluded that federal emergency agencies need to speed up after-action reviews, accurately track corrective actions and share those findings with local governments, residents, businesses or anyone else potentially affected by emergency response operations.

The risk-assessment process also needs updating, because it’s typically built on historical data, like the size of floods that happen every 100 years. But with the warming atmosphere increasing the magnitude and frequency of many such events, successfully responding to them in the future requires including climate projections that look at things like increased rainfall from tropical storms in those assessments, Montano said.

NOT THE FIRST RODEO

While the February deep freeze is freshest on Texans’ minds, Galveston County residents are perhaps most familiar with another type of weather disaster — tropical storms and hurricanes.

In response to a quick succession of storms, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017, local officials have changed building requirements and are considering what effects climate change might have on the region’s infrastructure in the future, Friendswood Councilman Steve Rockey said.

Voters in League City and Friendswood, for instance, approved bond referendums totaling more than $110 million for drainage projects in the years since Harvey dropped more than 50 inches of rain on some parts of the county and flooded more than 20,000 homes, Rockey said.

The response after Harvey “seems to be different from previous times,” League City Councilman Hank Dugie said. “Individuals and entities have really gotten together and tried to make something happen.”

And some part of that planning after the hurricane included accounting for the fact that the climate is changing, officials said.

At the federal level, scientists at the NOAA in 2018 increased the amount of rain needed for an official 100-year event in Galveston by 3.5 inches — to 17 inches in a 24-hour period from 13.5 inches..

Local officials, in particular, have taken seriously the importance of planning far into the future for more severe weather, Maxwell said.

But the key moving forward will be more federal investment, he said.

“During the last election, a common criticism was that nothing has been done,” Maxwell said about flood mitigation efforts. “But a tremendous amount has been done with drainage.

“The issue is that someone doesn’t get elected and start digging new pipe the next day. It doesn’t’ work that way. The environmental and engineering hurdles alone take years,” he said.

Cities have shifted their focus now toward preparing shovel-ready projects,” Maxwell said. That way they’re ready if the federal government ever provides extra funding for climate infrastructure, he said.

PAYING NOW OR PAYING LATER

As extreme weather events become more common, it’s important those closest to the front lines have a say in determining how to best respond, Montano, the disaster researcher in Massachusetts, said.

“Not having these emergency managers be part of this conversation is a huge concern,” she said. “Because of the urgency of the climate crisis we don’t have time to reinvent the wheel. We have to pull from the existing research and knowledge that we have if we’re going to be efficient in addressing these needs.”

For disasters that don’t exceed historical patterns for magnitude and frequency, the groups that exist to go in and help are well trained, adequately resourced and able to respond efficiently, she said.

“Where we have an issue is when we get to larger-scale events like the winter storm in Texas, and catastrophes like Katrina and Maria,” she said. “Then things fall apart really quickly. Things get more complicated, with increased challenges in communications and coordination. That is the area where our focus needs to be within emergency management.”

“We need to be investing more in our emergency response capacities,” she added. “Just because historically we’ve been OK at responding, doesn’t mean we will be in the future. If we’re depleting our capacities, the ability to respond to smaller events could also suffer.”

BRACING FOR IMPACT

Successful responses to future impacts of climate extremes require investments in building social strength, based on economic and environmental justice and equity, she said. Studies show that highly integrated communities with strong social bonds are better able to respond and recover, she added.

“We have a tendency to think of disasters as individualistic experiences, something you prepare yourself, your family for getting through,” she said. “But really, disasters are a social phenomenon and they require a social, community response.”

Still searching for a temporary place to live in Galveston, Gonzales said he took all the steps he has learned to take ahead of freezes, such as leaving the faucets dripping and wrapping all the pipes with insulation.

None of that was enough to stop the devastation. “There was water gushing into our driveway from the garage,” he said.

When he can still remember the last “once-in-a-lifetime event,” something is amiss, and as the scientists make very clear, that something is climate change.

“The same thing, just not as severe, happened in 2011,” he said. “They should have understood what could happen. There should have been more preparedness.”

Matt deGrood: 409-683-5230; matt.degrood@galvnews.com.

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(39) comments

David Blumentritt

There's definitely a school of thought that this article is fake news feeding an agenda meant to instill fear and allow elites to gain control of the means of production. There may have be some hesitation but we now know it gets cold on the gulf coast of Texas...and stop the presses...it gets hot...and we have hurricanes...and there's no excuse not to be prepared.

Bailey Jones

There is no "school of thought" - climate change deniers utilize neither of those facilities.

Gary Scoggin

Bailey, you win the Internet for today. perfect.

Carlos Ponce

Even President Trump believes in climate change. MAN-MADE climate change .... not so much.

Gary Scoggin

The four stages of acknowledging climate change...

1. It isn't happening.

2. It's happening but it's not man's fault.

3. It's man's fault but there's nothing we can do.

4. There are things we can do and should be doing.

Welcome to Stage 2, Carlos.

Carlos Ponce

And that's as far as it goes. #s 3 and 4 have been brainwashed. Looks like Gary Scoggin is there.

Joel Martin

Spot on Mr. Blumentritt. This is right out of Goebbels playbook. The Arctic's not melting and sea level isn't rising any faster than it has for years. Oh, by the way, the Polar bears are doing just fine.

Bailey Jones

I'm curious where you get your science news because everything you've written is false.

The artic is melting. Sea level rise is accelerating. The polar bears are headed towards extinction.

https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice/

https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-sea-level

https://www.mmc.gov/priority-topics/species-of-concern/polar-bear/

Please share the sources of your information.

Gary Miller

Bailey> Yours is defective. The product of climate change propaganda. As far as polar bears the countries around the Artic report counting rapidly growing populations. Four are expected to resume hunting soon. Less ice in summer lets Artic produce more food which let's polar bears get fatter in fall and survive winter in better shape. It's hungry time when Artic is frozen,

Gary Miller

Joel>Polar bears are not doing just fine. They have multiplied to the point they are becoming overpopulated. Population doubling every 12 years. Sea level is up 400 ft since it's record low during the Ice age. If all winter ice melted each summer earth would be in temp ballance.

Gary Miller

During the "global warming" fears it was winter getting warmer with summer stable or slightly cooler. Yearly average temp counts summer and winter.

Ted Gillis

Thanks for your helpful comment David. Wow, if only I had known to be prepared!

Diane Turski

The federal government will finally be providing extra funding for climate infrastructure when President Biden's infrastructure bill is passed and enacted!!

Michelle Aycoth

Not a chance, does not even have the support of some Democrats.

Bailey Jones

[thumbup] Our climate is changing before our eyes. Idiots have their blinders on.

Gary Miller

Bailey> Climate seems to be about same as it was when I was young, 86 years ago.

Carlos Ponce

74 years ago my Dad told me it was a cool day in April the day of the Texas City disaster. The Galveston Daily News reports a high of 71, a low of 58. At this moment there is a high temperature of 72. About the same.

Gary Scoggin

When you taught math, I hope you didn't teach statistics because you obviously don't understand them.

Carlos Ponce

I taught statistics, I understand statistics. Apparently you were asleep when it was taught in your school.

Gary Scoggin

Well in the six hours of graduate level statistics that I took they didn't teach me that two random measurements of a robust system taken 74 years apart are directly correlated and evidential of a trend (or lack thereof). But evidently there are kids who took math at Hitchcock HS who were taught to believe that.

Carlos Ponce

Take a look at my post. When did I use statistics? Apparently graduate school did not teach you the difference between a sampling and actual statistics.You must have been absent that day.

Gary Scoggin

Silly me. I thought there was a point to your story. I'll not make that mistake again.

Carlos Ponce

Gary Scoggin, I was relating what my father told me about his experiences during the Texas City Disaster. It was a cool April 74 years ago. No statistics given at all. Just remembering my dear departed dad.

Gary Scoggin

Companies with huge financial stakes at risk to climate change are certainly taking it very seriously. Beyond the big energy companies look at the agendas of companies such as BlackRock, the world's largest investment advisor, and the big re-insurance companies. These entities are spending real money on adjusting their portfolios to acknowledge the risk.

Bailey Jones

Not to mention our illustrious military -

https://www.vox.com/2020/2/24/21145687/climate-change-usa-military-book-interview

https://www.army.mil/article/238014/new_directive_to_prepare_army_installations_against_extreme_weather_climate_change

Gary Miller

Sea levels 400 ft lower than today? Daily high temp records 20 to 100 years old? Cold snaps every generation? Biggest hurricanes years ago? Politicians thinking they can get rich by scareing people. More property damage than before because there is more property to damage. More people die because there are more people living. All in my 86 years but same expected in next 86 years.

Wayne D Holt

The thrust of this feature story is something difficult to deny: climatic extremes seem to be more prevalent than in the past.That's the easy part.

Here's the hard part, figuring out a consensus on 1) how much of that is due to natural cyclical changes in the environment due to solar and geological changes that have occurred for hundreds of thousands of years that we can't change; and 2) how much of that is due to human impact on these extremes due to our presence on the planet that we can change.

Once we have arrived at something approaching verifiable conclusions there, the even harder questions for me are; 1) why are carbon credit clearinghouses set up to make profits for an intermediary conducting the swapping instead of as a public good and most importantly 2) why are green scolds like Greta Thunberg lecturing Western societies on this topic rather than spending the majority of their time sermonizing to the two greatest planetary polluters overall, i.e. China and India?

Gary Scoggin

Wayne, you raise some good points that merit discussion. I’d like to hit a few.

The IPCC reports speak to the amount of warming due to man’s activity vs earth’s activities (volcanism, primarily) and variations in solar output. The first two are pretty easy to determine as the historical and geological records are pretty clear. We’ve only been able to directly measure solar output for about fifty years via satellite but it’s my understanding there are ways to estimate it going back much further. I don’t know much more than that. According to IPCC, we are currently slightly above an average level of solar output. It has an effect but is not strong enough to account for the warming being experienced. (Disclaimer: it’s been awhile since I read into all of that so I had to dust off a brain sell or two to recount it.)

Carbon clearinghouses serve a purpose in that they allow money to flow to cheaper sources of carbon reductions. People that create low carbon sources of energy or carbon stores are able to sell those benefits to others who want to offset their carbon emissions. These are almost exclusively free market operations where the prices and benefits are determined by what the market will bear. Emission markets are capitalism at its best.

I agree with you about Greta Thunberg. I regard her as a distraction at best. I doubt she’s changed a single mind that mattered.

Carlos Ponce

"I doubt she’s changed a single mind that mattered." You're right about that. Greta became a joke. Shame on environmental zealots for taking advantage of a girl with Asperger's syndrome -"a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests".

Gary Miller

Gary S.> Al gore made millions selling carbon credits for tree planting in Africa, then made more millions selling fire wood from same trees.

Gary Scoggin

Gary M....

1. I doubt that's true. Actually, I think you're confusing this with an episode of King of the Hill where Dale did that, except he did it in Arlen.

2. Carbon markets today are run with a lot more rigor and assurance than they were a few decades ago.

Gary Miller

Good questions Wayne.

Bailey Jones

Greta, who I guess is the new boogeyman (boogeygirl) now that Al Gore has faded from the scene, is irrelevant to the science and a discussion of climate change. Science says that China and the US are the greatest sources of carbon pollution on the planet - at 30% and 15%, respectively. The EU is third at 9%, India is fourth at 7%.

Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. We have evidence of very considerable changes in climate during the last 800,000 years (100s of feet changes in sea level, for instance), so we know the effects of temperature on sea-level rise. If you overlay temperature on sea level rise (you can do that here - https://www.sealevels.org/) there is an absolute correlation; 2 degrees C corresponds to >40 meters of sea level rise. Our CO2 pollution is trapping thermal energy in a system that is very sensitive to temperature. It's not a question of if, but when, the sea washes over us. Any reaction to this crisis other than reducing our carbon emissions is just madness.

America must lead this effort. China, India, and all the rest are technological followers, not leaders. The technologies and techniques that we create and demonstrate here in the US, and the EU, are the only hope for saving our civilization. Pointing fingers at other countries accomplishes nothing.

Carlos Ponce

No, Bailey the boogeymen (and boogeywomen) are those who take advantage and use a young lady with a neurodevelopmental disorder.

Bailey Jones

Carlos Ponce - unwittingly proving my points for over three years now.

Carlos Ponce

Wrong again, Bailey.

Gary Scoggin

Bailey - maybe I mistinterpreted the site but I think you mean > 40 cm of rise, not 40 meters. I haven't seen any mainstream prediction for >120 feet of sea level rise at 2C.

Also, as important an issue as I think climate change is, I don't consider it a matter of "saving our civilization." Unabated, climate change will cause economic and societal disruption but I don't think its an existential crisis for humanity or, even, life as we know it. Personally, I have little confidence that we will hold warming to 2C. This will force adaptations in how we live, especially those of us on the Coast, but we will continue to adapt as the impacts become more apparent.

I do agree with you that the US must get its own house in order before lecturing others. Our nation has long been the world's greatest innovators. We need to continue to innovate, coming up with new technologies and approaches that can be adapted (and sold) to the world.

Bailey Jones

Gary, it depends on what time scale you're looking at (on the graph). It defaults to the last 1000 years - and the verticle scale is cm, as you note. Click on the weird clocklike icon on the upper left and it zooms out to 800,000 years, and the verticle scale goes to meters. The delta between the minima and maxima in the roughly 100K year cycles is about 120 meters.

I agree that no one is predicting that sort of sea rise. I suspect there are two reasons - first, we're already at the high end of sea level - the highest in the last 800,000 years is 13 meters above present sea level, at about 404K years ago. There's just not enough ice left to melt. The second reason is that sea-level change lags temperature by 2000-3000 years (it takes a long time to melt all of the ice on Earth). If you click on the icon that looks like a globe with a thermometer (next to the clock-like thing) it will add temperature to the graph. You can easily see that a 2 C increase in temperature is followed by about 40 m of sea-level rise.

I do believe that climate change is a threat to civilization. Climate change has destroyed civilizations in the past - https://climate.nasa.gov/news/1010/climate-change-and-the-rise-and-fall-of-civilizations/

The difference now is that man-made climate change happens much faster than previous natural cycles. There was a time when a change in climate simply meant migrating to a new place. Nowadays, migration means war. Many nations, US included, are running out of water. Crop patterns are already changing. Conflicts over resources are inevitable. Weak states will collapse and powerful states will turn inward to protect what they have. How do you maintain 8 or 9 billion humans without food or water?

The threat to our whole ecosystem is just as real. As I said, there was a time when a change in climate simply meant migrating to a new place. There is no habitat left for non-human life to migrate to anymore. How many links can you knock out of the food chain before it collapses? We're already seeing the most abrupt and widespread extinction of species since the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years - and they had an asteroid to blame it on.

Setting all of that aside, the potential for $$$profit$$$ in the new clean energy economy is just too huge to ignore. This is why anyone who is serious about making money in the future is already getting on board, as you have noted. America, and Texas, in particular, should be leading the way. We've both seen how a single new technology - the PC - has completely transformed the world, and we saw it happen again with the Internet. It's happening again with clean energy.

Gary Scoggin

Thanks for the clarification, Bailey. I couldn't quite master the website. Relevant to us is the predicted sea level rise over this century which is about 2 meters. Since my house sits at elevation 2.3 meters, this risk is not theoretical except that I don't plan to be around in eighty years or so. But sea level rise in the meantime could make it hard to get out of my garage.

With regard to the threat posed by climate change, semantics are important. I think I said that climate change will not be an existential threat - i.e., a threat to our existence as a species - but I do believe that unabated, it will be a very disruptive one. There will be re-allocations of resources and associated conflicts. Parts of the coast become uninhabitable, possibly including my neighborhood, and extreme weather events increase in magnitude and frequency. But mankind is adaptable and I have no doubt that we'll see it through. I am not saying that adaptation will be easy but I'm not as pessistic here are many are.

Personally, I don't see the international community coming together to hold temperature rise to 2C, let alone the 1.5C some folks are calling for now. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try - every little bit helps - but we have to shake the excessive doom and gloom and develop some realistic new scenarios.

The international efforts, such as the Paris accords, are nice but let's see them for what they are: A means for the developing world to assign blame to the developed world and, in the meantime, shake them down for money. China, India, the US, the EU, Russia and Japan account for 70% of the world's GHG emissions. While some reductions in Paraguay or Suriname would be nice, it's the big guys that make a difference. China will come around on this - not out of altruism, instead they see it as an opportunity to further spread their influence to the developing world. Russia, I think sees Climate Change as a good thing. Their foreign policy is based on creating mayhem around the world and picking up the pieces. What better way to do this but through events which are easily blamed on the US? (Plus, it's cold as hell there and a few extra degrees wouldn't hurt.) Europe will lead, followed grudgingly by the US. India is politically and socially chaotic and, I think will remain at the tail of the pack, constantly pleading for foreign investment. All of this to say that each country will look at this issue through its own lens of self-interest. There's nothing new about that in any diplomatic realm but I thing the realist in me sees the issue for what it is.

The answer is capitalism. Society needs to continue to come to the realization that using the atmosphere as a free dumping zone for excess carbon is not an economically sustainable nor wise policy. We do this through instituting carbon pricing across as much of the economy as possible. This is doable. Pricing system exist in Europe, parts of the US, China (more or less) and in many other developed nations. Expand that across more of the US, to India and the rest of the bigger emitters, make emissions fungible across international boundaries and cap emission limits at reasonable but constantly declining limits and then let the marketplace go to work.

Sorry for the length of this post!

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