Cattle deaths have been mounting in the central U.S. as the recent heat wave has pushed heat indices above 120 degrees in a number of states. Faced with dry pastures, rapidly depleting hay supplies and drought stressed surface water sources, ranchers in Texas are engaging in a significant livestock sell-off, referred to in one press account as culling into “the heart of the herd.” The size of the U.S. herd is now at a record low as farmers liquidate, enticed by high beef prices and expensive feed. The situation is dire enough that the government has stepped in with low interest loans to ranchers and direct payments for farmers that lost animals due to the extreme weather. Under the Livestock Indemnity Program, cattle lost to extreme weather are reimbursed by the government at 75 percent of their value, a significant expenditure when cattle losses are counted in the thousands. Texans are already looking for ways to adapt to the drought and improve their climate resilience. Henderson County is hosting a training session on August 22 entitled “Managing the Effects of Drought for Beef Producers.”
Over the weekend, the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning across a huge swath of the country, putting 132 million people under a heat alert. This warning is only issued when a heat index of at least 105°F is expected for more than three hours per day on two consecutive days or when the heat index is expected to rise above 115°F for any length of time. Recently in Iowa, the heat index reached 131°F, a level normally found only along the Red Sea in the Middle East. Scientists warn that these types of events could become much more common in the future, thanks to climate change.
Undoubtedly, it’s a different climate for talking about climate change this year. Extreme weather events have replaced legislative proposals as the big hook for discussing the issue. What hasn’t changed much is that we are still talking about it, and much of the talk still centers on the costs.
When climate legislation was before Congress last year, much of the discussion focused on the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This year we are seeing a new set of headlines. Story after story describes communities across our country being hit by extreme weather events – the floods in the Mississippi, Missouri and Souris rivers, the drought in Texas, and the wildfires in Florida and Arizona. We see vivid photos of temporary levees being built around nuclear power plants and wildfires threatening stored plutonium in New Mexico. The increasing number of extreme weather events is a wake-up call of the costs we will incur if we fail to address climate change.
We are teaming up with Scientific American to explain the link between climate change and extreme weather. In a new three-part series featured on Scientific American.com, award-winning science journalist John Carey dissects the science, impacts, and actions to take regarding the record-breaking floods, heat waves, droughts, storms, and wildfires experienced across the United States and the world in the past year. The first installment appears today.
To see the economic costs of extreme weather you don’t have to look all the way to Russia where last summer’s heat wave caused extensive wildfires and crop losses roiled world markets for wheat. Nor do you have to look as far as Europe where in the summer of 2003, a 1-in-500 year heat wave caused at least 35,000 premature deaths. No, extreme weather events have recently occurred within the United States. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, extensive flooding in the region in 2008 caused damage estimates of $8-10 billion. In Nashville, Tennessee, in May 2010, a 1-in-1000 year storm caused floods resulting in more than $3 billion in damage.
Whether you think these are just isolated incidents or are part of the emerging pattern of climate change, there is one thing we can all agree on. These events result in significant economic loss and to the extent we can build greater resilience into our economy to minimize losses from extreme weather, we will all be better off.