Minimizing the Costs of Extreme Weather

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.

Take a page from the military: Risk management could reboot climate change debate

Co-authored by Nick Mabey and originally appeared in The Hill's Congress blog

Once a serious issue becomes politicized and turns into a virtual weapon in the culture wars, it can seem impossible to move beyond partisan bickering and identify a reasonable and responsible course of action. But as those whose job is protecting national security have shown us time and again, it is important to chart a path forward --despite political battles-- when a situation is dangerous and the future is in doubt.


Defending the nation routinely requires making weighty decisions despite uncertainty, incomplete information, and limited resources. To do its job in these difficult situations, the military routinely uses an approach known as risk management. Risk management provides a systematic way to consider threats and vulnerabilities, “knowns and unknowns”, and to take steps to minimize risk.

2010 Ties for Warmest Year on Record

Every January, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center provides an expert analysis of the previous year’s climate. This puts the extreme weather of 2010 into a broader context. The record warmth of the past year adds to the huge body of evidence that the earth continues to warm.

Here are some of NOAA’s key finding:

Global average temperature

  • 2010 is tied with 2005 as the warmest year since 1880 when NOAA’s records begin. The temperature was 1.1°F above the 20th century average.
  • The Northern Hemisphere was the warmest on record while the Southern Hemisphere was the 6th warmest since 1880.
  • 9 out of the 10 warmest years on record are from 2001 and after.
  • Every year since 2000 is one of the 15 warmest years.
  • It is the 34th consecutive year that was warmer than the 20th century average.
  • NOAA scientist David Easterling said that the top ranking of 2010 reinforces the conclusion that the climate is continuing to warm because of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

10 Warmest Years on Record

Ranking

Year

°F above 20th Century Average

1

2010

1.12

1

2005

1.12

3

1998

1.08

5

2003

1.04

5

2002

1.04

7

2009

1.01

7

2006

1.01

8

2007

0.99

9

2004

0.97

10

2001

0.94

 
Other observations
  • Global snow cover was the lowest on record
  • Arctic sea ice reached its third-smallest summer minimum
  • In the United States, both land surface temperature and amount of rainfall were in the top third since 1880.
  • Although the eastern U.S. is having a cold winter, Canada and the Arctic are unusually warm, maintaining a globally warm condition.

Read more from NOAA: 

http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/

http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2011/20110112_globalstats.html

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program

Our Region at Risk

Front-Line City in Virginia Tackles Rise in Sea  --  The New York Times, Nov. 25

Last house on sinking Chesapeake Bay island collapses   --  The Washington Post,  Oct. 26

Flood Plan proposed to protect Washington Mall  --  The Washington Post, Nov. 15

Maybe climate change has fallen off the radar screen at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but these recent headlines from The Washington Post and The New York Times suggest that the issue hasn’t gone away. No, these stories aren’t straight out of some scary futuristic sci-fi movie (anybody remember the truly dreadful 1995 movie Waterworld starring Kevin Costner?). Nor are they based on some forecast for a distant future year spit out by a supercomputer. They simply report on real events, happening today, right here in our region. They provide a clear and present warning of the economic costs and human suffering that will increasingly be in the news if we fall to address climate change.

Lessons from Extreme Weather: A Minnesota Farmer Gets the Point

Throughout this year I have posted a number of blogs on the record-breaking extreme weather events of recent years, particularly 2010. Events ranged from unprecedented blizzards on the U.S. East Coast to the cataclysmic Russian heat wave and flooding in Pakistan. The key message I’ve tried to communicate is that, rather than debating whether these particular events are being caused by climate change – an interesting academic question that is unanswerable on a practical level – we should learn from these events about our individual and societal vulnerabilities and the real costs of climate change.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, offers an excellent example of the type of practical learning I’m talking about:

“The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.”

Mr. Hedin’s family has farmed the soils of southern Minnesota since the late 19th century. Today he runs a small farm in Rushville, where an onslaught of extreme weather events over several years forced him to retreat to higher ground. This is an example of forced adaptation where abandonment was the best choice. But even in the new location, his farm lost $100,000 worth of crops to excessive soil moisture this summer.

Notice that Hedin doesn’t waste time worrying about whether particular weather events were caused by human-induced climate change:

“The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.”

Climate scientists know the climate is changing, that many mid-latitude locations are becoming wetter as a result (see figure below), and that we can expect that trend to continue. What does it matter whether a particular storm on a particular day in a particular year was caused by human intervention with the climate system? After all, it isn’t one particular event that has Mr. Hedin worried about the future of farming in America’s grain belt; it’s the preponderance of evidence that the climate is already shifting and the common sense realization that farming is getting harder because of that shift.

Please read Jack Hedin’s op-ed in The New York Times. He has the right idea about learning from extreme weather events. 

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program