Climate change is warming the atmosphere so it holds more water vapor. This impacts weather patterns, changing where and how precipitation falls, intensifying rain events and wreaking havoc on communities around the country.
Climate Change is Warming the Atmosphere
With increasing frequency the country is experiencing wild weather patterns that swing from droughts to flooding, from severe winter storms and freezes to tropical cyclones. While a certain amount of the swing is part of normal climatic variation, climate change makes the atmosphere warmer so it holds more water vapor. This impacts weather patterns, changing where and how precipitation falls, intensifying rain events and wreaking havoc on communities around the country. And the impacts are intensifying, from regular, extreme droughts that result in municipal water shortages, crop losses, power plant shutdowns and intense, record breaking wildfires, to more frequent occurrences of 500-year floods in places that aren’t prepared to handle them.
The year 2017 was an active year for devastating storms. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria ravaged parts of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and most of the US Virgin Islands, leaving many without water or power and racking up huge agricultural losses. In fact, the trifecta of tropical terror turned 2017 into the costliest hurricane season in US history.
In some ways 2018 was worse. As of just July, there had already been six weather and climate disaster events across the United States, with losses exceeding $1 billion each. Then August, not to be outdone, said, “Hold my beverage.”
Hurricane Florence, made landfall in August as a weakened Category 1 storm and turned into the country’s second rainiest storm in seven decades. Florence barreled across the Atlantic and hit the Carolinas, bringing catastrophic flooding rains to the already saturated East Coast, causing coal ash ponds and chicken and hog manure lagoons to overflow, sending pollution into Carolina waterways and causing $38 billion to $50 billion in damage. At the same time, 6,000 miles to the west, Hurricane Olivia was on course to hit Hawaii as a strong tropical storm, just weeks after Hurricane Lane dropped more than 50 inches of rain on parts of Hawaii Island and Maui.
Hurricanes are Just Part of What Made 2018
Many areas of the country experienced record-breaking flooding in 2018. Coastal areas experienced record levels of flooding associated with sea-level rise. Heavy rainfalls brought record-breaking inland floods to places like Maryland, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. And all this happened while the western United States was engulfed in flames. California struggled with its worst fire season ever, following record breaking heat over the summer.
The United States and its infrastructure was built around the belief that we are water rich and will have water when and where we need it. Those old assumptions aren’t holding true anymore. As greenhouse gas levels increase in the atmosphere causing average global temperatures to rise, the incidence of intense weather is also increasing.
Major US Weather Disasters Since 1980
Figure 1 shows the US weather disasters that have cost the country more than $1 billion since 1980. Major droughts, floods and wildfires happen nearly every year now; severe storms happen every year and the number per year has increased. Every disaster affects our water, food and energy systems, and regardless of the disaster, the impacts are remarkably similar: water supplies are polluted or threatened; farms are devastated and suffer huge losses; power plants curtail production or shut down altogether, impacting electricity supply.
The country has always experienced monsoonal rainstorms, tropical storms and hurricanes, and some years are worse than others. This is part of normal weather patterns for the US. What’s changing as the planet warms is the intensity and frequency of storms and the frequency of inland flooding. In our overbuilt environment, flooding brings a wide set of issues. Especially in coastal regions, increased rain and inland flooding added together with greater storm surge from sea level-rise worsens the effects of flooding overall.
When floodwaters rise, water quality quickly becomes a concern. Flood waters pick up and carry all types of contaminants into waterways, including paints, solvents, pesticides, motor oil and many other toxic substances. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, in Texas, reporters catalogued more than 100 toxic releases on land, in water and in the air and most were never publicized. In one case, nearly half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater and storm water surged out of a chemical plant east of Houston into Galveston Bay.
Contaminated waterways often impact supply water that water treatments plants rely on. When power goes off line, water treatment and delivery can get cut off or severely cut back. A case in point was Hurricane Sandy – after power to a large section of Manhattan was cut off, and even though water continued to flow from the city’s treatment plants hundreds of miles away, those who lived in high-rise buildings that require pumps to bring water to them were cut off from water delivery.
Wastewater treatment plants get inundated and septic systems back up, causing raw sewage to flow into rising waters. The country already has issues with raw sewage flowing into waterways after “normal” big rain storms, producing bacterial contamination that can cause diseases. Increasing storm intensity exacerbates the problems. During Hurricane Sandy, 10 of New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants were so inundated that they released partially treated or raw sewage into surrounding waterways, while 42 pumping stations that keep sewage moving through the system were temporarily out of service because they were damaged or lost power.
Droughts present their own unique spin on water quantity and quality. When there is lower water flow, there is less dilution of pollutants so water supplies can become increasingly contaminated. Towns facing drought must confront dwindling reservoirs in which the quality of the water has plummeted as their pumps reach nearer the bottom.
Meanwhile, many cities and towns see their water infrastructure crumble because of heat and drought. For example, San Antonio spends millions on water main breaks that are exacerbated by drought – in 2018 they spent almost $6 million repairing nearly 1,100 water main breaks – because soil that lacks moisture shrinks away from pipes, leaving space on the outside for the inside pressure to burst through.
The most obvious impact of the drought is that surface and groundwater supplies don’t get replenished as they get taken for residential and other municipal purposes. Residential water use can often double, triple or even quadruple in the summertime because of lawn watering. This further strains water supplies, although active water conservation programs have helped curb this behavior in water-stressed communities. Some communities have had to make tough decisions about water allocation, including restrictions on residential watering and even allocations for agricultural irrigation.
Crops that often survive strong hurricane winds are often ruined after the ensuing flooding rains. Because many state regulations prohibit the sale of crops that have been exposed to potentially contaminated flood waters, those farmers suffer severe market losses. The hurricane season of 2017 was rough on the country’s agriculture. For instance, Hurricane Irma pummeled Florida, devastating the citrus crop, and two weeks before that, Hurricane Harvey dumped 60 inches of rain on Texas, causing upwards of $150 million in crop and livestock losses.
Everything is bigger in Texas, including their big weather swings as the flooding that devastated agriculture in 2017 followed the huge hit agriculture took from the 2011 drought. Without water, it can be difficult to produce crops and grow livestock. In Texas, 2011 turned out to be the driest year on record with an average of just under 15 inches for the year. The drought was also the costliest in state history causing $7.6 billion in livestock and crop losses. Because the state is subject to frequent droughts, necessitating irrigation water, the state has worked with agricultural producers to embrace conservation and efficiency.
Floods, on the other hand, don’t make power plant owners any happier. The country has a significant number of power plants in flood zones (remember, they are often located in coastal locations or next to water bodies). The record-breaking storm surge that accompanied Hurricane Sandy inundated a power generating substation leaving a big chunk of Manhattanites in the dark for a week after the storm. Flooding often damages backup generators, and without a cooling system, reactors can overheat, which is especially problematic at nuclear plants. Nuclear powered reactors that were threatened by Sandy’s rising waters were taken offline as precautions.
Electric power production can be impacted when water supplies run low. Many power plants (those that use thermoelectric processes, anyway) rely on water to cool steam, which is why many power plants are located next to water bodies.
As droughts continue, water levels in rivers and lakes drop, which impacts power production in several ways:
- First, there is simply not as much water available to use for cooling steam produced from the plants’ processes.
- Second, once the steam has been cooled, the water used to cool it has been heated up and it’s usually put back into the water body it was initially taken out of. As water levels in rivers and lakes drop, adding all that warm water can cause the river or lake water to warm up. If the water temperature gets high enough, state regulations may prohibit plants from discharging that heated water into water bodies in order to protect fish and other aquatic life.
- Sometimes water temperatures in water bodies used for cooling get too warm for the plant to use in the first place; as a result, power plants might cease operating, which means they have to stop producing electricity, thereby disrupting the stability of the electrical grid.
Fossil fuel production can also be dramatically affected by drought and deluge. Droughts have serious consequences for the water-intensive petrochemical industry, as was seen in Texas during the 2011 drought. Similar problems for liquid fuel refineries and plastic manufacturers could mean problems for the entire country if water weren’t readily available for refinery processes.
The Time to Respond to Climate Change is Now
The effects of extreme droughts and floods are intensifying for two main reasons. First, while scientists can’t point to climate change as the sole cause of a particular extreme weather event, it is almost certainly the force behind more frequent and more intense extreme weather events. Second, the United States is increasingly leaving itself exposed to natural disasters. Thanks to an unrelenting procession of blizzards, droughts, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, there have been 10 natural disasters costing a billion dollars or more each so far in 2018 (as of June 2018).
The country is running out of time to understand how a changing climate is changing extreme weather patterns, much less to prepare for those changes. The latest IPCC report estimates that within the next decade, human-caused carbon-dioxide emissions need to be radically reduced and by 2050 carbon-dioxide emissions must drop to zero in order to keep average global temperatures below the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold of catastrophic changes. By now, it should be clear how food, water and energy systems rely on and impact each other. While they seem resilient, it often takes very little to put the systems out of balance.
The United States – long with the rest of the planet – faces tough questions that must be answered at all levels, from the individuals and the actions they take, to elected officials and the policies they create. The United States must hold itself and its representatives accountable to make the right decisions. Will the country make significantly greater investments to help prepare for the new weather “normals” of tomorrow, or roll the dice and wait for the next storm – or drought – to hit? If people change how they eat, consume water and use energy, when done collectively, they can make a big difference in the availability and, ultimately the sustainability of the natural resources the country relies on. The decisions made today will have significant and lasting impacts for decades to come.