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Intense Storms Are Battering Towns and Revealing Destructive Power of Climate Change

Frances Beinecke

Posted July 31, 2012

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When I was a child growing up in New Jersey, we looked forward to summer rains. They pierced the muggy heat and left crisp cool temperatures in their wake. In the past few years, however, summer storms have taken on a more ominous tone.  Climate change has intensified storm patterns, and all too often, today’s storms bring costly destruction instead of welcome relief.

At the end of June, a powerful string of thunderstorms--called a derecho--hurdled from Indiana to Delaware in just 10 hours, unleashing winds up to 80 miles an hour. The storms left 23 people dead and 2.5 million without power for days. Cleaning up the debris and damage will take far longer.

Another potent storm dumped up to 10 inches of rain in Minnesota and Wisconsin a week earlier, flooding homes, shattering rainfall records, and prompting a polar bear to escape from a swamped Lake Superior Zoo.

These are just some of the many storms sweeping the nation these days. Some cause minimal damage—downed trees and snapped electrical wires. But others do lasting harm to people’s livelihoods and communities.

I will never forget what Tropical Storm Irene did to the Adirondack region of New York last August. Small towns I’ve visited all my life were pummeled by relentless rains and crushing winds. In the Keene, sheets of rain turned a small brook into a surging torrent that swept away the fire house, a mobile home, propane tanks, and the back porch of a café. Homes were swamped with mud and water. Even more troubling, the town’s main road was washed away, disconnecting it from the main artery that brings tourists and business into the community.

Farmers were especially hard hit by Irene. The flooding was so bad that some had to use canoes to cross their fields, while others lost livestock. “In about 20 minutes, the water level went from nothing to 7 feet high,” said David Lloyd. Nearly 50 of his animals drowned, mostly calves that were too small to stay above water. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated the storm caused more than $7 billion in damages.

Storms are common in the summer, but climate change can turn routine events into something extreme. It loads the atmosphere with more moisture, packing storms with more power and precipitation. Even areas receiving less rain overall are experiencing more concentrated downpours.

Right now, most of the Midwest is suffering through the worst drought in 50 years.  But the region also experiences increasingly intense storms. The number of severe downpours in the region has doubled over the last half century, according to a report from the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and NRDC. This trend has severe consequences. In recent years, deluges have washed out Cedar Rapids, IA, forced the Army Corps of Engineers to intentionally blow up levees to save Cairo, IL, and sent the Missouri River over its banks for hundreds of miles.

Storms may be a fact of life, but extreme events of ever-increasing strength do not have to be. We can defuse this growing threat by reducing the carbon pollution that causes climate change.

We can start by expanding clean energy resources like wind and solar. Roughly 35 percent of all new power generated in America in the past four years has come from wind energy. This is a good start, but several lawmakers want to kill one of the key incentives for this growth: the Production Tax Credit. Our leaders must extend this incentive and promote policies to ramp up clean energy and energy efficiency.

We must also cut carbon pollution from dirty fossil fuels. The Obama Administration has proposed clean car standards that will cut vehicle carbon pollution in half and carbon limits for new power plants. Now it should set limits for existing power plants as well.

These commitments will help America reduce carbon pollution and stabilize the climate. If we fail to make these changes, destructive storms will become the norm. But if act now, we can help ensure that most summer storms bring cool, wet relief instead of costly damage.






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Dennis BusseyAug 3 2012 04:08 PM

As I've been attempting to think through this global warming thing, I came up with some very basic questions for which I can't find answers from anyone. And this is after many hours or reviewing every web site I could find on the subject.

Don't we all agree agree that since the problem is global warming, then the solution by necessity is to reduce the earth's temperature or to at least slow the amount of warming?

And certainly don't we agree there must be a realistic practical process and benefit to all the attention we are paying to the reduction in the combustion of fossil fuels?

Therefore my questions are:

1. By what degree Fahrenheit will the temperature of the earth be mitigated by reducing CO2?

2. On what calendar date will that temperature reduction be achieved?

3. What will we have to do to achieve the reduction of the earth's temperature to the degree Fahrenheit and within the timeframe necessary to preclude all the awful things that will otherwise happen? What changes in our way of life are needed?

I understand that precise answers to my questions about temperature and dates may not be possible, but certainly there must be a ballpark answer that we can agree with. And certainly we need to have a clear answer to question #3 in order to convince the citizens of the earth that we have a realistic practical process to stop global warming.

Thank you in advance for helping me understand these most elementary aspects of global warming science and related public policy.

Eugene HeckerAug 3 2012 05:24 PM

with the electric cars coming into the field,we will need more electric power. With wind powers looking good but with the high winds and rains, will they stand up.Solar panels loose their effeciency when the temoerature goes over 85 degrees. The old coal fired power plants will still be workig when droughts will cause the hydro plants to shut down due to lack of water.
The temperatures in the oceans have gone up destroying the coral reefs. Jelly fish have increased shutting down some beaches.
So what is the solution? There is a system, coming on line, that will cut down on all green house gasses. The by product from this system can be used for Bio-fuel production. A copy of this system will be sent upun request.

Charles WeberAug 3 2012 05:33 PM

Dear Frances Beinecke ;
Increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is undoubtedly increasing climate warmth. However I suspect that also an equally great or greater affect on warmth is the baring of soil by increase in annual crop acreage, roads, buildings, grazing, and desertification currently, especially in the tropics and subtropics. This may be a considerable part of the reason why the southwestern USA tends to be warmer than the southeast. You may see an article that briefly discusses this in more detail in . If you see any possible improvement or errors, please let me know.
I suspect that shrubs in the Arctic have the opposite affect.

I see no reason why many climate water problems can not be much ameliorated by intelligent management of water both before and after the water reaches the soil, including pumping it into water tables through large, clean gravel filled deep holes. Rhode Island pumps whole rivers into the ocean during a flood, so the pumps already exist. I suspect that such a technique could be used to flush salt or poisons out of ground water also if designed right.
Our management of water is very important. There is no reason why we should allow huge volumes of water to flop down and flow unimpeded across farms down stream, destroying them, while adjacent areas shrivel up by drought. There are huge pumps that can easily prevent this. Allowing river water to flow into the ocean from any country relying on ground water is not very intelligent either.

Sincerely, Charles Weber

Keith SherburnAug 3 2012 05:48 PM

While I support NRDC in their fight against pollution, I would like to address some concerns about using events such as Irene and this summer's derecho in the fight against anthropogenically-induced climate change.

First, hurricanes occur every year, and Irene was devastating primarily because of where she made landfall. Though a rather weak storm, she struck the east coast of the U.S., where the population and property density is relatively high. Additionally, many areas affected by Irene had not seen a landfall in many years, likely resulting in some poor preparedness by citizens. Though a terrible toll on human life and property, Hurricane Irene was a common occurrence meteorologically.

Likewise, severe-wind producing mesoscale convective systems are common across the U.S. in the summertime. Though less common, derechos (which is really a fancy name for especially long-lived, severe squall lines) occur several times per decade. I understand that "derecho" is a buzz word after what occurred in the mid-Atlantic, but like Irene, this is more a consequence of *where* the derecho tracked rather than any meteorological factors.

The drought, record highs, and so forth may be a consequence of climate change. I am not as qualified to answer that question, and I don't know that we will actually know the answer until several years down the line. However, I know that hurricanes and damaging wind storms are not a result of climate change; they are annual occurrences and have been for some time. My concern is that when we start using common events in association with serious, anomalous problems, our factual foundation will begin to crumble.

Regardless, I admire your pursuit for a cleaner Earth, and I support you in your pursuit for stricter emission standards and more widespread renewable energy use.

Raj (Rajagopal) NambakamAug 8 2012 11:18 AM

Experts all over the Planet have been shouting about Global Warming, Environmental Hazards, Climate Change etc., etc., & discussing how many billions are required to arrest/reverse the problems, who will bear it & how to raise and where to spend etc. etc. with absolutely ZERO PROGRESS IN ALL DIRECTIONS. I have been mentioning whenever I get an opportunity to write my views (wherever) NO ONE IS ABLE TO SEE THAT OUR DEVELOPMENTAL PRIORITIES ARE TOTALLY NEGATIVE & WE CAN NEVER DREAM OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT IF WE PLAN OUR DEVELOPMENT, ON SIMILAR LINES. No expert ever bothers to write to me WHERE IS THE ANSWER & WHAT KIND OF DEVELOPMENT IS RIGHT.

WELL ALL THESE EXPERTS EXPECT ANSWER ONLY FROM EINSTEIN OR MAX PLANCK AND THEY ARE LONG DEAD. They feel it is an insult to ask some person without international fame. So we have Irene, Catrina, Laila, Mary, Victoria, Elizabeth, etc. There is no ready made pill available but there is no time to wait for the MAGIC READY MADE PILL. As Mr. Al Gore said, we have to act today because we have no tomorrow.

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