Heavy Preciptation and Climate Change

Heavy Precipitation and Climate Change

Extreme precipitation events have produced more rain (Figure 1) and become more common (Figure 2) since the 1950s in many regions around the world, including much of the United States. In particular, the Midwest and Northeast have exhibited  the strongest increases in the amount of rain falling in heavy precipitation events.

Scientists expect these trends to continue as the planet continues to warm. Warmer air can hold more water vapor. For each degree of warming, the air’s capacity for water vapor goes up by about 7 percent.  An atmosphere with more moisture can produce more intense precipitation events, which is exactly what has been observed, averaged over large areas of the Earth.

It is important to note that increases in heavy precipitation may not always lead to an increase in total precipitation over a season or over the year. Some climate models project a decrease in moderate rainfall, and an increase in the length of dry periods, which offsets the increased precipitation falling during heavy events.

Figure 1: The map shows percent increases in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events (defined as the top 1% of all daily events) from 1958 to 2011 for each region.
Source: National Climate Assessment

Threats posed by Heavy Precipitation

The most immediate impact of heavy precipitation is the prospect of flooding as streams and rivers in the region overflow their banks. Since 2008, the United States has seen six floods costing at least $1 billion each, resulting in damaged property and infrastructure, agricultural losses, displaced families, and loss of life.

  • In September 2013, Boulder, Colorado, received almost a year’s worth of rainfall (17 inches) in four days. The resulting flooding destroyed homes, shut down thousands of oil and gas wells, and damaged crops.
  • In 2010, almost 20 inches of rain fell on Nashville, Tennessee, over three days. Losses in Nashville alone totaled over $1 billion.
  • In 2008, floods struck the Midwest, with the worst impacts in Iowa and Wisconsin. Losses totaled $15 billion, mainly from property and agriculture.

In addition to flooding, heavy precipitation also increases the risk of landslides. When above-normal precipitation raises the water table and saturates the ground, slopes can lose their stability, causing a landslide. A particularly deadly landslide occurred in March 2014 in Washington state, where landslide risks can be relatively high. The heavy precipitation in the preceding weeks caused a landslide that buried 30 homes and killed at least 41 people

Excessive precipitation can also degrade water quality, harming human health and the ecosystem..  Storm water runoff, which often includes pollutants like heavy metals, pesticides, nitrogen, and phosphorus, can end up in lakes, streams, and bays, damaging aquatic ecosystems and lowering water quality for human uses. In the Chesapeake Bay, elevated levels of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus have led to algae outbreaks, which can lower the water oxygen content, killing clams, oysters and other aquatic life.

Many cities in the United States, such as New York and Philadelphia, use a combined sewer system, where both storm water and wastewater are mixed, treated, and released. Heavy precipitation events can overwhelm such systems, sending excess storm water and wastewater directly into the environment. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, overwhelmed sewer  systems discharged 3.45 billion gallons of untreated sewage into New York City’s rivers, bays and canals. Even in Washington D.C., where coastal flooding was not a factor, 475 million gallons of untreated sewage was discharged into local rivers, drastically reducing water quality.

Figure 2: Relative frequency of once-in-five-year precipitation events falling over a 2-day period, averaged over the  continental U.S, 1900-2011. Green bars in the recent decades show that these events have become more frequent, when averaged across much of the country.
Source: National Climate Assessment

How to Build Resilience

Communities can bolster their resilience and reduce the impacts of heavy precipitation by:

  • Locating buildings and infrastructure on higher ground or areas that are less prone to flooding,  raising buildings, or using flood control infrastructure.
  • Limiting the use of non-permeable surfaces like pavement and concrete in developed areas, or replacing pavement with “green infrastructure” that can reduce runoff during storms.
  • Separating storm water systems from wastewater systems, using holding ponds, or increasing water treatment capacity to avoid sending untreated sewage into local waterways.

Purchasing flood insurance can help families and communities recover after a flood hits. However, recent floods have put the National Flood Insurance Program billions in debt, and further reforms are necessary if public flood insurance will continue to be available in the future.

To Learn More

IPCC’s Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events (SREX)

US EPA- Heavy Precipitation

National Climate Assessment

Wildfires and Climate Change

Wildfires and Climate Change

Large wildfires burn more than twice the area they did in 1970, and the average wildfire season is 78 days longer.

Research shows that changes in climate, especially earlier snowmelt due to warming in the spring and summer, have led to hot, dry conditions that boost this increase in fire activity in parts of the West. For much of the West, projections show that an average annual temperature increase of 1 °C would increase the median burned area per year. The increase could be as much as 600 percent in some types of forests.

Wildfire risk depends on a number of factors, including temperature, soil moisture, and the presence of trees, shrubs and other potential fuel. All these factors have strong direct or indirect ties to climate variability and climate change. Warmer temperatures and drier conditions increase the chances of a fire starting, or help a burning fire spread. Such conditions also contribute to the spread of the mountain pine beetle and other insects that can weaken or kill trees, building up the fuels in a forest. Although our choices regarding land use and firefighting tactics can also play a role in lowering or raising risks, observed and anticipated changes in climate have and are expected to increase the area affected by wildfires in the United States.

Threats Posed by Wildfires

Since 2000, 10 forest fires in the United States have caused at least $1 billion in damages each, mainly from the loss of homes and infrastructure, along with firefighting costs.

  • In 2015, wildfires burned more than 10.1 million acres across the country, the highest annual total acreage burned since record-keeping began in 1960. The costliest fires occurred in California, where more than 2,500 structures were destroyed in the Valley and Butte wildfires.
  • In 2011, the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico became the state’s largest in history by a factor of three. In 2012, that record was broken as the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire burned nearly twice as many acres as the Las Conchas Fire.
  • Wildfires burned more than 9 million acres in 2012. Colorado’s two most destructive fires ever—the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires -- happened during this particularly destructive season.


Estimates of the percentage increase in the area burned in regions across the West for a 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, 1 degree Celsius warming. The different regions correspond to different “ecoprovinces,” which distinguish areas with distinctive vegetation types and climate conditions.  Values are drawn from median burn estimates from a fire model.  All areas exhibit increases; many of them exceed a doubling (i.e., value shown is more than 100%) and some areas show a five-fold increase (i.e., value shown is more than 400%). Source: National Research Council, "Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia ( 2011 ).

Damage to homes and other buildings can be substantial, in part from the recent and rapid development of areas near fire-prone forests. As the number of homes located near forests at risk of wildfire has increased over the past two decades, U.S. Forest Service fire suppression expenditures have risen from 16% of their appropriated budget to more than 50 percent. State wildfire expenditures also increased substantially. While more buildings add to the risk of damage from natural fires, the presence of people in wildlands increases the risk of fires starting. In fact, as many as 90 percent of wildfires in the United States are caused by people.

Beyond direct damage to the landscape, several public health risks are related to wildfires. Smoke reduces air quality and can cause eye and respiratory illness, especially among children and the elderly. Wildfires can also hasten ecosystem changes and release large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere—contributing to further climate change.

How to Build Resilience

Communities, builders, homeowners and forest managers can reduce the likelihood and impacts of wildfires by:

  • Discouraging residential developments near fire-prone forests through smart zoning rules.
  • Increasing the space between structures and nearby trees and brush, and clearing space between neighboring houses.
  • Incorporating fire-resistant design features and materials in buildings.
  • Increasing resources allocated to firefighting and fire prevention.
  • Removing fuels, such as dead trees, from forests that are at risk.
  • Developing recovery plans before a fire hits, and implementing plans quickly after a fire has occurred to reduce erosion, limit flooding, and minimize habitat damage.

To Learn More

Cal-adapt Wildfire Risk Map

NASA Wildfires: A Symptom of Climate Change

USFS Climate Change Resource Center: Wildland Fire and Climate Change

Water-Energy Webinar Series

Water for Energy and Energy for Water: Challenges and Opportunities for Utilities

A series of three webinars sponsored by the Association for Metropolitan Water Agencies, the Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center, and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions intended to help utility managers address issues across the water-energy nexus.

  • Webinar 1 – An overview of water/energy issues from national and federal perspectives
    May 8, 2 p.m. – 3 p.m. ET 

Dr. Craig Zamuda from the Department of Energy (DOE) presents key findings from DOE’s recently released water/energy nexus report, attempting to distill some of the key issues and risks of which water and electric utilities should be aware. Dr. Kristen Averyt, Associate Director for Science for the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and Director of the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado, presents her research regarding water-energy challenges that exist currently and are on the horizon.

See video vere.

  • Webinar 2 - Partnerships between water and energy utilities to address water/energy challenges
     June 19, 2 p.m. – 3 p.m. ET

Patrick (Pat) Davis, Sustainability Manager at Orange Water and Sewer Authority (Carrboro, North Carolina) and Doris Cooksey, Water Quality & Planning Manager at CPS Energy  (San Antonio, Texas) share their experiences in addressing water-energy issues, focusing on how they have coordinated and developed shared strategies with peer utilities located in the communities that they serve.

See video here. View slides here.

  • Webinar 3: Innovation and effective stakeholder engagement on water and energy issues
    July 24, 2 p.m. – 3 p.m. EDT
    Involving other stakeholders or partners for a water-energy project often leads to insights, innovations, and/or greater efficiency. In this third and final webinar, speakers from American Water and East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD; California) discuss how they leveraged stakeholder involvement to address water-energy challenges and implement innovations. 

Suzanne Chiavari, Engineering Practice Leader from American Water, will describe some of her organization’s recent work in using renewable energy technologies, and how they’ve engaged community partners to establish greater integration across their resource management activities. Clifford Chan, Manager of Water Treatment and Distribution at EBMUD, will talk about two projects with multiple stakeholders that have helped the utility to implement its energy management strategy.

See video here. View slides here.

Water for Energy and Energy for Water: Challenges and Opportunities for Utilities

Promoted in Energy Efficiency section: 
2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.Webinar 1: An overview of water/energy issues from national and federal perspectivesSee video here. View slides here.

Webinar 1: An overview of water/energy issues from national and federal perspectives

May 8, 2014

2 p.m. – 3 p.m. ET

Dr. Craig Zamuda from the Department of Energy (DOE) will present key findings from DOE’s recently released water/energy nexus report, attempting to distill some of the key issues and risks of which water and electric utilities should be aware. Dr. Kristen Averyt, Associate Director for Science for the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and Director of the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado, will present her research regarding water-energy challenges that exist currently and are on the horizon.

See video here. View slides here.


Hurricanes and Climate Change

Definition of a Hurricane

A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone, which is a general term for a low-pressure system with activity like thunder and lightning that develops in the tropics or subtropics, between about 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south latitude. In the Northern Hemisphere, these storms rotate counter-clockwise. In the Southern Hemisphere, they rotate clockwise. Stronger systems are called “hurricanes” or “typhoons,” depending on where they form. Weaker tropical cyclones might be called “tropical depressions” or “tropical storms.”

It’s unclear whether climate change will increase or decrease the number of hurricanes, but warmer ocean surface temperatures and higher sea levels are expected to intensify their impacts.

Hurricanes are subject to various climate change-related influences. Warmer sea surface temperatures could intensify tropical storms wind speeds, potentially delivering more damage if they make landfall. Based on sophisticated computer modeling, scientists expect a 2-11 percent increase in average maximum wind speed, with more occurrences of the most intense storms. Rainfall rates during these storms are also projected to increase by about 20 percent.

In addition, sea level rise is likely to make future coastal storms, including hurricanes, more damaging. Globally averaged, sea level is expected to rise by 1-4 feet during the next century, which will amplify coastal storm surge. For example, sea level rise intensified the impact of Hurricane Sandy, which caused an estimated $65 billion in damages in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in 2012, and much of this damage was related to coastal flooding.

The connection between climate change and hurricane frequency is less straightforward.

Globally, the number of tropical storms that form each year ranges between 70 and 110, with about 40 to 60 of these storms reaching hurricane strength. But records show large year-to-year changes in the number and intensity of these storms.

It’s important to note that changes in frequency and intensity vary from basin to basin. In the North Atlantic Basin, the long-term (1966-2009) average number of tropical storms is about 11 annually, with about six becoming hurricanes. More recently (2000-2013), the average is about 16 tropical storms per year, including about eight hurricanes. This increase in frequency is correlated with the rise in North Atlantic sea surface temperatures, which could be partially related to global warming.

One trend analysis published in the journal Nature shows the strongest hurricanes have also increased in intensity over the past two or three decades in the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Other areas in the Pacific and Indian Oceans show virtually no significant trends. Other trend analyses that include all hurricanes globally are similarly inconclusive, with upward trends in the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans and no apparent increase in frequency or intensity in other basins.

For the 21st century, some models project no change or a small reduction in the frequency of hurricanes, while others show an increase in frequency. More recent work shows that there is a trade-off between intensity and frequency – that as warmer oceans bolster hurricane intensity, fewer storms actually form. For the continental United States in the Atlantic Basin, models project a 75 percent increase in the frequency of category 4 and 5 hurricanes despite a possible decrease in the total frequency of all storms.

The tracks of tropical storms near the United States. Tropical storms are shown with red lines and major hurricanes (Category 3 and higher) are yellow. Source: National Hurricane Center. To see the legend, click here

Threats Posed by Hurricanes

The National Hurricane Center categorizes Atlantic hurricanes based on wind speed. A storm with winds exceeding 74 mph is a Category 1 hurricane. Storms with winds stronger than 111 mph are considered “major hurricanes” (Category 3 or higher). Many factors contribute to a hurricane’s impact, including its track, size, storm structure, rainfall amount, duration, and the vulnerability of the area it affects.

Eight of the 10 costliest hurricanes on record in the United States have occurred since 2004. Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012) were by far the most damaging, costing $125 billion and $65 billion respectively. Hurricanes Andrew (1992) and Ike (2008) cost $27 billion each. Sandy ranks as the second most damaging storm or weather disaster since 1980, even though the storm was no longer a hurricane at landfall.

An important driver of the increased cost of hurricanes is increasing development in coastal areas. U.S. coastal populations grew by nearly 35 million people between 1970 and 2010. Coastal counties account for nearly 40 percent of the total U.S. population. As more development occurs in harm’s way — regardless of climate change — the more likely the damage will grow.

How to Build Resilience

Ways communities can bolster their resilience and reduce the impacts of hurricanes include:

  • Preserving coastal wetlands and dunes to absorb storm surges.
  • Replenishing beaches and improve infrastructure that affords coastal protection, such as seawalls.
  • Elevating vulnerable buildings to reduce flood damage.
  • Designing structures to be resilient to high winds and flying debris.
  • Enacting policies that discourage development in vulnerable areas.
  • Preparing prior to a storm’s arrival by boarding windows, clearing property of potential flying debris, and having an evacuation plan.

To Learn More

National Hurricane Center

NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

Learn How to Prepare for Hurricanes at


Extreme Heat and Climate Change

Extreme Heat and Climate Change

Across the globe, warming temperatures are increasing the risk of hot weather and decreasing the risk of colder weather. Hot summer days are getting hotter, as well as more frequent, sometimes stretching into multiday heat waves.

During the past decade, daily record high temperatures have occurred twice as often as record lows across the continental United States, up from a near 1:1 ratio in the 1950s. By midcentury, if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly curtailed, scientists expect 20 record highs for every record low. The ratio could be 50:1 by the end of the century. By the 2050s, many of the Mid-Atlantic States including urban parts of Maryland and Delaware could see a doubling of days per year above 95 degrees F. In parts of the South, the frequency of days above 95 degrees F could triple, to over 75 days per year. While climate change will not mean the end of cold weather — scientists still expect record lows to occur in 2100 — the odds have clearly shifted (see map).

Extreme heat can also increase the risk of other types of disasters. When heat occurs in conjunction with a lack of rain, drought can occur. This, in turn, can encourage more extreme heat, as the sun’s energy acts to heat the air and land surface, rather than to evaporate water. Hot, dry conditions also increase the risk of wildfires, like the ones in 2013 in Colorado that were fueled by record heat and an ongoing drought.

More extreme heat in the 21st century. The map shows the projected increase in the number of days with maximum temperatures above 95°F for the later part of the 21st century. The color indicates the increase in the number of days (i.e., orange areas in Oklahoma are projected to experience 20 or more additional days of temperatures above 95°F). The hatching across most of the country indicates that the change passes a significance test in that location. Source: NOAA Technical Report NESDIS 142-9

Threats Posed by Extreme Heat

Human Health

Extreme heat is the most deadly natural disaster in the U.S., killing on average more people (about 600 per year) than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods combined. The Billion Dollar Weather Disasters database compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists heat waves as four of the top 10 deadliest U.S. disasters since 1980. Two heat waves in 1980 and 1988 were particularly deadly, contributing to 10,000 and 7,500 deaths respectively. These two events account for the vast majority of extreme weather-related deaths in the database, with Hurricane Katrina (1,833 deaths) as the only non-heat wave event that caused more than 500 fatalities.

High humidity and elevated nighttime temperatures (i.e., when nighttime low temperatures remain relatively warm) appear to be key ingredients in causing heat-related illness and mortality. Heat stress occurs in humans when the body is unable to cool itself effectively. Normally, the body can cool itself through sweating, but when humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, potentially leading to heat stroke. When there’s no break from the heat at night, it can cause discomfort and lead to health problems, especially for the poor and elderly.


High temperatures at night can be particularly damaging to agriculture. Some crops require cool night temperatures, and heat stress for livestock rises when animals are unable to cool off at night. Heat-stressed cattle can experience declines in milk production, slower growth, and reduced conception rates.


Higher summer temperatures will increase electricity use, especially during heat waves. An increase in cooling demand is already apparent over the past 20 years. Although warmer winters will reduce the need for heating, modeling suggests that total U.S. energy use will increase in a warmer future. In addition, as rivers and lakes warm, their capacity for absorbing waste heat from power plants declines. This can reduce the thermal efficiency of power production, make it difficult for power plants to comply with environmental regulations regarding their cooling water, and can make it harder to get permits for new facilities.

How to Build Resilience

Communities can bolster their resilience and reduce the impacts of extreme heat by:

  • Creating heat wave preparedness plans, identify vulnerable populations, and open cooling centers during extreme heat.
  • Using green roofs, improved building materials, and shaded building construction to reduce the urban heat island effect.
  • Pursuing energy efficiency to reduce demand on the electricity grid, especially during heat waves.
  • Shading and cooling livestock, breeding livestock selectively for heat tolerance, and switching to growing more heat-resistant crops.

To Learn More Extreme Heat

National Weather Service Heat Awareness Day

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention- Extreme Heat


Rising Risks

The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates that impacts are occurring now, that many natural and human systems are vulnerable, and that further warming will make the consequences of climate impacts even worse.
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Climate science is clear: Earth is warming

A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal dredges up debunked conclusions drawn from a cherry-picked set of temperature measurements to try to call into question the reality and potential severity of climate change.

In a nutshell, authors Richard McNider and John Christy argue that warming in the upper atmosphere since 1979 is less than models had predicted and, therefore, models can’t be trusted and climate change shouldn’t be a concern.

In fact, virtually all climate data and research show that the Earth is warming. And it will continue to do so if we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And this warming will bring an increased risk of more frequent and intense heat waves, higher sea levels, and more severe droughts, wildfires, and downpours.

To get at the facts, we can draw on recent climate assessments, including the State of the Climate report compiled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I report, and the National Research Council’s America’s Climate Choices, plus other recent research (Thorne et al., 2011, Santer et al., 2013).

Based on this research, here are three things to keep in mind:


This winter was cold for some, not for all

A lot of folks in the eastern half of the United States are breathing a sigh of relief that spring is just around the corner. Average temperatures this winter were among the Top 10 coldest in some parts of the Upper Midwest and South. More than 90 percent of the surface of the Great Lakes is frozen, the highest in 35 years.

But while East Coast and Midwest kids have been sledding and their parents have been shoveling, it has not been cold everywhere. In fact, many areas are unusually warm.

In Alaska, January temperatures were as high as they have been in 30 years. The Iditarod dogsled race was especially treacherous this month because of a lack of snow. Crews had to stockpile and dump snow on the ground at the finish line in Nome, where temperatures earlier this winter broke a record.

Globally, January was the fourth warmest on record – really – despite pockets of well-below-normal temperatures in parts of the United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), most areas of the world experienced warmer-than-average monthly temperatures. For example:

  • China experienced its second warmest January on record.
  • France tied its warmest January.
  • Parts of Brazil and Australia saw record heat.
January temperatures were above normal for much of the globe.
January temperatures were above normal for much of the globe.

Accounting for scientific uncertainty in a dangerously warming world

Most people at some point develop a “Plan B” – in case their first choice of college doesn’t accept them, or it rains on the day of their planned outdoor party, or the deal for the house they wanted falls apart. The same principle applies for more dire situations, such as a city having plans in hand for an orderly evacuation in case of a large-scale disaster. We hope such an event will never happen, but the mayor had better be prepared in case it does.

In a commentary today in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, three colleagues and I discuss the need for a “Plan B” for climate change: How will we cope with increasingly severe climate impacts if we are unsuccessful in limiting global warming to a chosen target?

In the 2009 Copenhagen climate accord, countries set a goal of limiting global warming to below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above the average global temperature of pre-industrial times. However, given that the planet has already warmed by 0.8 °C, additional warming is already locked into the system, and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, this “Plan A” has become increasingly difficult and may become impossible to achieve if widespread emissions reductions do not begin within this decade. A maximum warming target is a necessary goal of climate policy, but what if our efforts fall short?

Some voices in the environmental community will feel that asking this question is ceding failure, but I disagree. Instead, it means admitting that we can’t perfectly foresee the future and that we need to be prepared for surprises. This is called risk management and everyone from parents, to mayors, to companies, to the U.S. military uses risk management every day to cope with uncertainty.

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