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Sandy Highlights One Sphere of Climate-Related Water Impacts, Midwest Drought Another

Theo Spencer

Posted December 4, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Green Enterprise, Solving Global Warming

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Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath have continued to receive a lot of media attention, and deservedly so. Families are still without their homes, new health impacts are being revealed, and New York and New Jersey are asking the federal  government for over $80 billion to deal with the aftermath and prepare for the next storm.

One thing has become clear, we cannot just rebuild and create the same risks presented pre-Sandy. Many sensible solutions are being proposed and a suite of them will be needed to protect the impacted region.

Hopefully the attention brought by Sandy to climate change impacts, though, will not be limited to sea level rise, storm surges and an ‘excess’ of water.

Climate-related water shortages are currently crippling large swaths of the country.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the Mississippi River. The worst drought in five decades (Business Week article) has dropped the Big Muddy 30 to 50 below feet normal levels. Reduced water levels make the river narrower, limiting the space for barge/goods transport.

The timing is particularly bad: a drought-weakened harvest is heading to market  down-river on barges. But the narrow river has caused traffic backlogs clogging the main trade route. If water levels continue to fall, the river could become impassable. River depths in important passages have shrunk to 13 feet, and if they drop to 9 feet, rock formations in some key areas could make it impossible for traffic to pass. The National Weather Service predicts the Mississippi will reach the 9-foot mark by December 9th,  in less than a week.

As a recent story in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press (MN) noted:

Over the years, parts of the river occasionally have been closed because of low water, barge accidents, dredging, ice and flooding. But this shutdown, if it happens, would affect a pivotal stretch that is used for two-way traffic -- shipments going south to the Gulf of Mexico as well as transports from the Illinois and Ohio rivers headed north to Chicago and St. Paul.

A two-month shutdown -- the length of time that some observers fear given current conditions -- would have an estimated impact of $7 billion, according to the river industry trade group American Waterways Operators.

Consider agricultural products. It costs 30 to 35 cents more per bushel to send grain to the Gulf by rail instead of by barge -- a massive figure when calculating the millions of bushels shipped downriver.

Shippers and goods-producers are apoplectic, calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to release more water into the river. The Corps controls water flow from a dam upstream, limiting the amount to ensure there is enough to make river navigable in the Spring and Summer. So far the Corps has refused, and is instead dredging the river 24 hours a day.

The Corps has already shut down river traffic once this year, due to low flows, in August.

Droughts are natural, but have been made worse by warmer overall temperatures caused by climate change pollution mainly from burning fossil fuels.

As Climate Central noted:

A recent study found that global warming made this summer’s the Texas drought and heat wave 20 times more likely to occur than under similar large-scale climate conditions 50 years ago. Other research shows that warming driven by human activities made the same heat wave and drought more severe than it otherwise would have been. 

A new study released last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows the clearest evidence yet of the impacts of climate pollution on the atmosphere, and rising temperatures. Winters are getting shorter, and less precipitation is falling as snow—nature’s form of water storage. This all means less water stored up in dams to maintain navigable flows on rivers like the Mississippi.

Preparing for warmer winters and heightened droughts is difficult and complex, much like preparing for the impacts of another Superstorm Sandy. But one thing is clear: we must reduce the pollution that’s causing our climate to change and warm. By failing to fully confront the climate crisis, we are saddling our communities with steep costs, devastating losses, and mounting dangers.

Our President, Frances Beineke, summed it up well:

We must set carbon limits on existing power plants (click here to send a message to the administration in support of carbon limits). We must extend incentives for wind energy and spur investment in clean energy research. And we must help cities and states embrace the energy, water, and public health strategies that will make them more resilient. 

This is how we lower the costs of extreme weather: we make our communities cleaner, stronger, and more sustainable. 

On that note, please look at the innovative and thoroughly researched (modeled) proposal we released today. It calls for cutting carbon pollution from existing power plants—our nation’s largest source of global warming pollution—and giving each state broad flexibility to meet the standards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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