“Don’t wait, don’t delay, we all hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” President Obama’s statement on Hurricane Irene urges the public to take precautions before one of the most significant northeast hurricanes in recent history. Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for much of the Atlantic seaboard, including coastal areas of New York City. All lanes of one major highway in New Jersey are headed in one direction only – west. The safest course of action is always to get out of the way of an approaching storm – to minimize the risk of harm when you can.
Texas climatologists have recently stated that the ongoing dry spell is the worst one-year drought since Texas rainfall data started being recorded in 1895. The majority of the state has earned the highest rating of “exceptional” drought and the remaining areas are not far behind with “extreme” or “severe” ratings by the U.S. Drought Monitor. So far, Texas has only received 6.5 inches of the 16 inches that has normally accumulated by this time of year.
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.
|Glaciers on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro|
I recently returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania for a great cause, and I was reminded why I left engineering to work on climate change. Mount Kilimanjaro, or Kili, is the tallest peak in Africa, and its summit is covered with beautiful glaciers (see the picture to the right). But those glaciers are rapidly disappearing, and scientists estimate Kili’s summit will be ice free by 2022. This trend is a prime example of forced adaptation to climate change and provides a serious warning of things to come unless we work together to reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. The action we need has to come from government at all levels, businesses, and individuals as we explain in our Climate Change 101 series.
The State of Maryland released a new report earlier this year recommending a course of action to adapt to our changing climate. This report is the latest in a series that began in 2007 when Governor Martin O’Malley issued an executive order to establish the Maryland Commission on Climate Change. The commission was charged with addressing the causes of climate change and adapting to the most likely impacts. In 2008, the Maryland Climate Action Plan was released, addressing impacts, mitigation, and economic concerns.
Among the impacts highlighted in the Climate Action Plan was sea level rise, projected to be more than a foot by mid-century and as much as 3 feet by 2100. If the highest rates are realized, most tidal wetlands would be lost and about 200 square miles of land would be inundated. The bay would also suffer additional stresses as restoration goals become more difficult to achieve. Aquatic species composition will change and increased nutrient runoff into the bay will make water quality goals much harder to meet. Impacts are projected to occur inland as well with heat waves greatly increasing the risk of illness and death. The average year will have 24 days above 100°F by the end of the century. Ground level ozone, formed under prolonged, high temperatures will increase, resulting in more respiratory illnesses, especially among vulnerable populations.
The Action Plan addressed the adaptation needs of coastal regions but only highlighted the need to pursue the development of adaptive strategies for other affected sectors. In response, work began on a report specifically for adaptation in these other sectors. Earlier this year, the culmination of this effort was released as the Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change, Phase II: Building societal, economic and ecological resilience. The report provides the basis for guiding and prioritizing state-level activities with respect to both the climate science and adaptation policy within short to medium-term timeframes.
- Human Health: Conduct vulnerability assessments to gain a better understanding of risks and inform preventative responses by assessing potential health threats and the sufficiency of Maryland’s response capacity. The impacts to food safety and availability must also be evaluated.
- Agriculture: Increase crop diversity, protect against incoming pests and disease, and intensify water management through research, funding and incentives. Enhance existing Best Management Practices (BMPs) and land conservation targets including revising targets for agricultural land preservation. BMPs that are geared toward protecting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay are likely to be significantly shifted as changes in seasonality and precipitation occur.
- Forests and Terrestrial Ecosystems: Expand land protection and restoration and revise targeting priorities. This includes integrating climate data and models into existing resource assessments and spatial planning frameworks as well as developing adaptation guidance for local government planning. Management practices to reduce existing forest stressors should also be adjusted. High elevation forest species such as the red spruce or Eastern hemlock will likely disappear from Maryland as will the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly and ecosystem management plans must reflect these future changes.
- Bay and Aquatic Ecosystems: Restore critical bay and aquatic habitats to enhance resilience. It is recommended that the state be proactive in the design and construction of habitat restoration projects due to their importance in enhancing the resilience of aquatic ecosystems. Dam removal projects on Octoraro Creek in Cecil County and Raven Rock Creek in Washington County have resulted in reduced stream temperatures and moderated stream flow, boosting connectivity between habitats and resilience of fish and other transient species.
- Water Resources: Ensure long-term safe and adequate water supply for humans and ecosystems. Reduce the impacts of flooding and stormwater by removing high-hazard water supplies and preventing inundation and overflow of on-site disposal systems. On-site disposal systems already lead to raw sewage leakage in Maryland are likely to worsen with increases in extreme precipitation. These failing septic systems must be improved or replaced.
- Population Growth and Infrastructure: Plan for precipitation-related weather extremes and increase resilience to rising temperatures by identifying investment needs to prepare for weather emergencies and improving stormwater management strategies. Urban tree canopy should also be increased to provide urban heat reduction, stormwater reduction, and air filtration.
Not every state has an adaptation plan, and Maryland is one of only two states (Virginia) in the Mid-Atlantic region to have completed one or made progress. However, both North Carolina and South Carolina have Climate Action Plans that call for an adaptation report and more states are moving towards producing adaptation plans. Maryland is at risk from a variety of ill-effects due to climate change and the identification and implementation of key adaptation measures will ensure the state minimizes the impacts and costs of climate change in the long run. Other states would do well to take heed, and move to minimize their costs as well.
Dan Huber is Science & Policy Fellow
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.
Kicking off the new year, we released an update of its Climate Change 101 series. Climate Change 101: Understanding and Responding to Global Climate Change is made up of brief reports on climate science and impacts; adaptation measures; technological and business solutions; and international, U.S Federal, State, and local action. Last released in January of 2009, the updated reports highlight the significance of the global negotiations, climate-related national security risks, local efforts to address climate change, the most recent predictions on global temperature changes, and more.
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.
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