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Extreme Weather: Lots of Bad News In, Let's Get the Good News Out

Theo Spencer

Posted March 1, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Solving Global Warming

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There’s been a fair amount of wacky weather recently, in the small chance you haven’t noticed. People walking around in tee shirts in the Northeast marveling at flowers that don’t usually appear until several months later. 50 degree below zero temperatures in Eastern Europe, causing ice-bound residents to be evacuated by helicopter. In some cases, it’s hard to complain. In others, it’s real easy. What’s obvious, though is that this ain’t normal.

A handful of scientific studies have been released of late to help us understand what’s going on. All of them make the connection between extreme weather and man-made heat-trapping pollution. These studies, while important, are reasonably depressing, so I’ll sprinkle in good news throughout this post.

People across southern parts of the United States are still recovering from the extreme heat and crushing drought in those areas. That’s in keeping with a new study released by Lawrence Livermore National Labs which analyzed the latest data from sophisticated climate models and found that extreme summer temperatures are already happening more frequently and will become normal by mid-century if the world continues at its current rate of emitting greenhouse gas pollution.

Summers so hot that they used to show up only once every 20 years or so would make up 70 percent of summers in across most of the continental United States, lead author Phil Duffy told Science Daily.

In the Science Daily story, Duffy says:

The observed increase in the frequency of previously rare summertime-average temperatures is more consistent with the consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations than with the effects of natural climate variability.  It is extremely unlikely that the observed increase has happened through chance alone.

The report appeared in a recent edition of the journal, Climatic Change. Lead author Duffy and colleagues compared data from 1975—2000 to the proceeding 25 years and found that both observations and results based on 16 global climate change models show that summertime-average temperatures that were rare in the earlier period occurred more often in the later period in certain regions. They then looked at the period 1995-20024 and found that summer temperatures that were extreme during 1950-1979 occur more often in the later period.

A second statistical analysis showed that this increase also is very unlikely to be due to chance weather variations alone, such as El Ninos or La Ninas. Finally the team looked at model results for 2035-2064 and found that extreme summertime temperatures that were rare during 1950-1979 will be a lot more frequent. In other words, summer temps that historically occurred only 5 percent of the time are projected to occur 70 percent of the time everywhere in the lower 48 states.

Ultimately of course, the best way to reduce the likelihood of ever-increasing temperatures and extreme weather events is to start reducing the heat-trapping pollution that’s largely responsible for causing them—mainly carbon dioxide emitted from industrial facilities (dirty power plants), and vehicles. Fortunately there’s action on that front. The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of releasing a suite of health protection standards that will also reduce heat-trapping pollution. The Obama Administration and auto-makers have also reached historic agreements to substantially increase the fuel efficiency our vehicle fleet (to 35.5 miles per-gallon by 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025), cutting carbon pollution and saving consumers thousands of dollars over the lifetime of these new vehicles. 

This all a good start, but more needs to be done--namely to cut our emissions 80% by 2050. Below are some more reasons why.

On the cold front, a study released this week in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences suggests there is a connection between melting arctic sea ice—largely caused by the increasing of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere—and more intense storms in the United States and northern continents, particularly ‘Snowmegeddon’ type snow storms and colder weather. There is a nice ABC News story clearly explaining the findings of the study.

According to the researchers from Georgia Tech, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Columbia University, shrinking Arctic ice alters the atmosphere in two ways: first weakening the jet stream by changing atmospheric circulation patterns and slacking winds across the Atlantic and Pacific. A weakened jet stream permits enables more frequent surges of bitter cold Arctic air southward. Secondly, melting Arctic ice allows more water vapor to evaporate into the air.

The ABC News story quotes the lead author of the study, Jiping Liu of Georgia Tech:"This greatly enhances the transfer of moisture from the ocean to the atmosphere,” Liu said. That humidity, he says, essentially acts as fuel to help supercharge “Snowmageddon”-type storms like the ones that paralyzed parts of the northeastern U.S. in 2010. A more recent, deadly deep freeze in Eastern Europe left 650 people dead.

“The record decline in Arctic sea ice is at least a critical contributor to recent snowy winters in northern continents,” Liu said.

Here’s the good news. Some companies are taking actions to reduce their emissions of heat-trapping gasses, in part because they recognize its good for their bottom line. Yesterday, the EPA announced awards to more than 10 companies for their roles in reducing the emissions that cause warming temperatures (story here—subscription required). The awards went to big multi-national US companies such as Ford Motor Co, UPS, Campbell Soup Co., IBM, Hasbro and SC Johnson. Companies that own power plants, including San Diego Gas and Electric, as well as Southern California Edison, also were recognized for their leadership efforts in reducing greenhouse gas pollution.Neeless to say, though, corporate America needs to do a lot, lot more.

Another reason why? More extreme storms.

Storm of the Century? Try storm of the Decade. That’s according to a study released recently by MIT researchers Ning Lin and Kerry Emmanuel.

Those of us on the East coast vividly recall Hurricane Irene, which caused extensive flooding, power outages, and property damages, killing 44 people in 13 states. As my colleague Dan Lashof noted in his blog post about the report, many commentators called Irene a 100 year storm, but the MIT research shows flooding and associated impacts could happen much more regularly as our climate changes and sea levels rise.

Lin and Emmanuel focused on flooding potential in New York City. As Dan noted in his blog:

“The researchers simulated 5000 storms under historic climatic conditions to develop a flood risk baseline. They then simulated another 5000 storms under conditions expected if carbon pollution continues to accumulate in our atmosphere unchecked, changing our climate and raising sea levels. Their conclusion is well summarized by the headline in the MIT News story about the study: ‘Storm of the Century?’ Try ‘Storm of the Decade.’

Specifically, the study found that a storm surge of 5.7 feet or higher, which currently occurs an average of once every 100 years, would occur once every 3 to 20 years due to the effects of heat-trapping pollution. Given that the sea walls protecting lower Manhattan are only about 5 feet tall, this means the city has a lot of work to do if it is to minimize the damage.”

So what can be done?. New York City has one of the most forward-thinking climate preparedness plans, Chicago, Seattle, Boston and Philadelphia have also been leaders in comprehensive preparedness planning. In our In our recent Thirsty for Answers report we look at the significant water-related vulnerabilities of 14 cities, ranging from water shortages to more intense storms and floods to sea level rise, and what those cities are doing to prepare for climate impacts.

Along those lines, NRDC recently released a report, Rooftops to Rivers, which details how cities of all sizes are saving money by employing green infrastructure as part of their solutions to stormwater pollution and sewage overflow problems, resulting from increased heavy rains. Those heavy rains run off paved surfaces and roofs and overwhelm sewage and storm-water systems, causing threats to drinking water and our health, while also fouling our beaches and degrading ecosystems. Green infrastructure solutions have the added benefits of beautifying neighborhoods, cooling and cleansing the air, reducing asthma and heat-related illnesses, lowering heating and cooling energy costs, boosting economies, and supporting American jobs.

States are acting too. Over 12 states have preparedness plans, or are in the process of adopting them. Numerous tool kits are available for cities and states looking to implement these plans. Among the leading states are California and New York. New recently released a comprehensive look at climate impacts, and responses to those impacts. 

At the federal level, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently launched its Weather Ready Nation web tool. You can find a nice CNN print story on it here.

In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a very useful site to help businesses get out front and prepare for climate impacts. In a speech yesterday, FEMA head Craig Fugate said green buildings save businesses money (story here—subscription required). Such actions also save taxpayers money, he said, because less damage means less federal bailout dollars for damage repair.

Think Progress has a nice blog on Fugate’s speech. Author Tina Ramos noted:

The administrator stressed the importance of recognizing “total cost of ownership” in decision making that affects our nation’s and our communities’ futures. “People are starting to get a better sense of what total cost of ownership is. When you buy a car now, you don’t just ask how much it costs. You ask how many miles to the gallon the car gets.” You look at how present decisions have future consequences on your pocketbook and well-being.

According to the blog, Fugate added:

We cannot afford to continue to respond to disasters and deal with the consequences under the current model. Risk that is not mitigated, that is not considered in return on investment calculations, oftentime steps up false economies. We will reach a point where we can no longer subsidize this.

To FEMA Director Fugate’s point, the conservation group Environment America recently released a report, In the Path of the Storm: Global Warming, Extreme Weather, and the Impacts of Weather-Related Disasters in the United States, detailing how extreme weather impacts 80% of all Americans. The study has a very nice interactive map and lays out, among other findings:

  • Since 2006, federally declared weather-related disasters affected 2,466 counties across the U.S. which house more than 242 million people.
  • 2011 set a record with at least 14 weather disasters across the country inflicting more than $1 billion each in damage, the total cost in damages from these disasters amounted to $55 billion.
  • Other research shows that the U.S. has experienced an increase in heavy precipitation events, with the rainiest 1 percent of all storms delivering 20 percent more rain on average at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. The trend towards extreme precipitation is projected to continue in a warming world, even though higher temperatures and drier summers will likely also increase the risk of drought in between the rainy periods and for certain parts of the country.

USA Today ran a nice story on the report with a helpful map, as did The Washington Post. Interestingly, The Joplin Globe also ran a fairly lengthy story. The Missouri town was devastated by a tornado last year.

Many in the private sector are clearly on alert. As Fortune magazine writer Marc Gunther noted in a recent blog post, companies that have first-hand experience know they need to take action to prepare for future impacts. Gunther focuses on Entergy, an $11 billion-a-year utility company based in New Orleans that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of Katrina, Entergy commissioned a comprehensive Gulf Coast Adaptation Study, and has been working with communities in the region to organize preparedness plans and actions. Marc quotes Entergy’s Director of Climate Consulting, Jeff Williams, as saying of Katrina and subsequent hurricanes: "That really put a face on what the future was going to be like. Clearly we are facing risks from sea level rise, more intense storms, flooding and surge damage."

Marc goes on to write of Entergy:

The company has looked at "hardening" key assets including power plants, substations and transmission lines; the goal is to make Entergy "more resilient in ways that minimize business interruption loss," Williams says.

For example, Entergy has begun a five-year $73.5 million project to relocate and harden transmission and distribution lines serving Port Fourchon, LA, which is the single largest point of entry for crude oil coming into the U.S., handling about 13 percent of national imports. (After Katrina damaged the electrical infrastructure, 25 percent of oil production and 44 percent of natural gas production became shut in, Entergy says. National oil prices went from $60/bbl before Katrina to $70/bbl after Katrina because of supply interruption; national natural gas prices went from $8/Mcf to $15/Mcf.)

Finally, a recent study to be published in the March issue of the journal Epidemiology by professors at Yale and Johns Hopkins looks for the first time at the health impacts of blackouts. 

As noted in the press release, the study found that, in August of 2003, during the largest U.S. blackout to date, both accidental and disease-related deaths increased significantly in New York City.

Lead author Dr. Brooke Anderson of Johns Hopkins explains, “Little is known about how blackouts affect human health, but blackouts could become more frequent due to growing energy use stresses and climate change,” she said.  “Our study indicates that power outages can immediately and severely harm human health.” 

This is the first study to analyze how disease-related deaths are affected by power outages. 

Some polluting industries have been challenging in court EPA’s determination that global warming endangers humanity. During oral arguments Wednesday in the case, chief justice of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals David Sentelle—appointed by President Ronald Reagan—told industry attorneys, “That doesn’t even make good nonsense.”

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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