Maine Breaks 34 Weather Records This Year; US Breaks 3,000
Planning for extremes
Thursday, December 29, 2011 5:46 AM
At least 34 weather-related records were broken in Maine this year, including 13 record rainfalls, 12 record hot temperatures and nine snowfall records, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Using national weather data, NRDC developed an online mapping tool that allows viewers to see the progression of extreme weather events in their state over the course of 2011. They made the mapping tool available to the public in early December.
Maine was spared some of the worst floods and storms that hit the rest of New England this past year, but no state in the country was spared extreme weather, from droughts to massive snowstorms, hurricanes to tornadoes. And none evaded the high costs associated with the crisis situations that followed.
US Extreme Weather Price Tag for 2011: $53 Billion
Crisis management is an expensive way to go.
In total, extreme weather in 2011 cost taxpayers around $53 billion, according to the NRDC.
Insurance companies are taking notice and trying to calculate the costs. Lloyd's of London, which conducts business in over 200 countries, released a study in September on how to manage escalating risks associated with natural catastrophes in the United States.
Their assessment of the 2005 triple hurricanes (Katrina, Rita and Wilma) indicated that private insurers could not cover all the losses: $16 billion in compensation came from the National Flood Insurance Program, which is now almost $18 billion in debt because the insurance premiums were too low to reflect the increased risk and didn't come close to covering the payouts after the disasters occurred.
The report by Lloyd's concluded that the scale of the extreme weather challenges requires cooperation between government, insurers and land use planners to do advance planning.
Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, noted that the World Economic Forum's Global Risk Survey places the perceived economic impact of climate change toward the top of the risk list, just below "fiscal crises" and ahead of "extreme energy price volatility" and "global governance failures."
"We don't know yet what the new normal is going to be," said Nutter, "but the industry sees a pattern of losses that is rather extraordinary."
Capping greenhouse gas emissions makes sense, he said, but the insurance industry has focused on adaptation, including building safer homes and structures under building codes that take into account possible natural catastrophes.
Health Effects: Lyme, Dengue Fever, Bubonic Plague
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Climate and Health Program has been investigating the effects of weather and climate changes on human health for years.
Most of the discussion about climate change hinges on potential impacts on natural ecosystems and our ability to maintain stable economies, said Dr. George Luber, the Associate Director for Global Change at the CDC, who participated in an NRDC press conference call on December 8.
Luber said health impacts have largely been overlooked.
"This is not just about polar bears and penguins, but really about people," he said. "We are talking fundamentally about human welfare."
"We are already committed to a substantial amount of warming now, regardless of our choices about emissions going into the future."
"The impacts of climate change are not in the future but are ones we are feeling today," said Luber. "They have been well quantified and identified and it is important to know we have to do something about it now."
Luber said we need immediate preparedness plans for extreme weather, particularly extreme heat, which he said was the number-one extreme weather killer in the United States.
The heat waves in Europe in 2003 caused between 35,000 and 70,000 deaths, according to the CDC and other sources. Europe was unprepared for the extreme weather.
"If they had been, almost all of those deaths were preventable," said Luber.
Warmer temperatures also allow for the spread of insects and rodents that carry diseases to new regions. Lyme disease, West Nile Virus and bubonic plague are on the march, said Luber. Dengue fever, a mosquito-transmitted virus that is typically considered a disease of the neo-tropics, has been documented in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, according to the CDC.
The CDC summarizes the short- and long-term impacts: increasingly hot temperatures make some chronic diseases worse, including cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and can lead to severe illness and death. Heat also increases ground-level ozone, which causes direct injury to the lungs.
Over a longer time period, increased temperatures can lead to drought and other ecosystem changes that result in shortages of clean water and may concentrate contaminants in surface water. Drought can also result in higher food prices and food shortages.
The rising of sea levels, associated with more violent storms and a trend towards a small but steady rise in the mean sea level, can allow for infrastructure damage along the coast and lead to saltwater contamination of freshwater drinking supplies.
What Do We Do? Emergency Planning Is Key
The debate about the cause of extreme weather - is it climate change and should we put tighter controls on pollution to try to slow the effects? - continues unabated in the United States, but most of the rest of the world has moved on.
At the international level, 63 countries on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are cooperating on how to manage the impacts of extreme weather. The conversation is not about whether the earth is warming, but how to manage more extreme weather that is on a worsening trend.
On November 18, 2011, the IPCC released a report on how to implement disaster risk management.
In 2006, three years after the fatal European heat waves, France experienced similar extreme heat. But France's death toll was up to 100 times lower than in 2003, according to Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton University and the lead author of the IPCC report.
"Governments got their act together," he said, by providing earlier warnings about excessive heat, supplying water to those in need, and establishing air-conditioned shelters for the elderly and others at risk.
Maine Planning Falls Short
Only 13 states have included public health measures in their climate change plans, according to the NRDC.
In Maine, average temperatures are increasing, as are days with extreme heat, storms, droughts and unhealthy air. The NRDC predicts average temperatures in Maine could rise 10-13°F in the winter and 7-13°F in the summer by the end of the century.
In 2009, the Maine State Legislature directed the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to evaluate the options and actions available to Maine's people and businesses to prepare for and adapt to the most likely impacts of climate change.
The DEP reported back findings, strategies and recommendations that had been distilled from a variety of sources. In the 2010 report, "People and Nature Adapting to a Changing Climate: Charting Maine's Course," the DEP?laid out what to expect:
• Sea level will rise at an accelerated rate, threatening coastal infrastructure from roads and rails to waterfronts and wastewater plants, as well as beaches and wetlands that are at the foundation of many coastal economies;
• The temperature of seawater will rise and its chemical composition will continue to change, creating challenges for sea life and for people who make a living from the sea;
• Winter precipitation will increase and come more often as rain, presenting implications for tourism, agriculture and storm water control;
• Storms will be more frequent and more intense, damaging crops, threatening property, saturating soils and producing septic system failures and contamination - all placing new pressure on emergency response;
• Even as overall temperature and precipitation amounts trend upward, the year-to-year and season-to-season weather will be more variable, presenting the prospect of floods one season and droughts another;
• As average winter temperatures moderate, pests and pathogens that colder temperatures have kept out will expand their range in Maine, presenting new public health issues and new intruders into agricultural fields and forests; and
• Freshwater flows in rivers and streams will change, altering conditions for aquatic life and water supplies for businesses and communities.
The report provided planning strategies and over 60 recommendations to communities and encouraged early planning between all levels of government and community members.
This month, the NRDC concluded that Maine was behind the curve in strategic planning.
For air pollution, the state strategy is to study and assess health threats from deteriorating air quality related to climate change. The strategy for extreme heat is to offset it by maintaining and enhancing community and urban forests to soak up excess summer heat and to establish indicators for heat-related illness and death by tracking incidents.
The NRDC reports that Maine has no specific plans to address climate-related infectious diseases, drought, or flooding even though the state has identified each as health-related threats.