The new normal for extreme weather means that the models that dictate how we build and plan for fires, floods and droughts are outdated — and put at risk.
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The US Forest Service team that arrived in the Santa Fe National Forest on April 6 had a plan. They would light a small fire and burn the accumulated brush that might fuel a more destructive fire. These controlled burns are a key tool in reducing the risk of wildfires, and the Forest Service has reported success in 99.84% of their prescribed fires.
But on this day, the team’s time-tested plans and near-perfect achievement record mean nothing.
Drought, hot conditions, and winds sucked moisture from the trees, causing pine needles to decay and limbs to fall off. Tree trunks that were usually wet with water from earlier winter snow masses or spring rains and runoffs were much drier than if they were passing through a wood-kiln. Rather than help slow the spread of the flame or reduce the temperature of the fire, they increased its intensity.
Fires lit by the Forest Service that day escaped containment lines and exploded in the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, covering 341,000 acres and burning hundreds of homes.
An 80-page review of the incident published in June found that firefighters made several slips. The lack of up-to-date weather information contributed to further miscalculations. But one factor stood out: The team underestimated the risk of the fire burning out of control, a risk exacerbated by the region’s prolonged drought and high temperatures.
“Climate change is leading to conditions on Earth that we have not experienced before,” Forest Service chief Randy Moore wrote in the foreword to the report. “Fire outperforms our models. … We must learn from this event and make sure that our decision-making processes, tools, and procedures reflect these changing conditions.”
Scientists have been predicting increasingly brutal and extreme Weather fluctuations caused by global warming for decades. But events like the New Mexico fire reveal a widening chasm between the new normal for extreme phenomena and a world prepared for weather events using numbers from a fixed climate that no longer exists. I advise:
- Across the country, federal rainfall standards that engineers and developers use to plan new roads and buildings are outdated, in some cases decades, putting the United States at risk of more flooding.
- In the Pacific Northwest, few would have thought temperatures could rise as high as 121 degrees in the always-cold and rainy region — until last year’s event. Hundreds of people died in the thermal dome event that hit the last week of June, bringing some of the highest temperatures ever recorded there.
- In the West, warnings that drought times are coming have not evaded the problems caused by a massive 22-year drought that has threatened the drinking water supplies of cities. Lakes are drying up, some crops are failing and many believe decades-old water allocation laws need to be renegotiated.
Experts say the problems are likely to get worse.
“There is a whole host of examples where we have very complex systems that are designed and built on ancient climate assumptions,” said Noah Divinbow, a climate scientist at Stanford University. “We are falling further and further behind.”
He added that updating models and forecasts to prepare for increasingly severe events is not easy.
He said, “I am not saying that the scholars have not been listened to.” “It would be difficult to design a world that is resilient to climate change from scratch – which is even more difficult to do in the context of other competing priorities and a system built on assumptions about fixed climate.”
Using the latest numbers—especially when they are often dire—is not always the first choice for policymakers and state and federal agencies, said Kurt Schwab, professor of environmental economics and a water allocation expert at the University of California, Riverside.
“It’s often just kind of wishful thinking,” Schwab said, adding that when given a range of possible values, “they often choose a more optimistic value because they want to make things look better for their constituents.”
That approach doesn’t work when you come up every day with news of temperature records falling, fires burning, and rivers drying up.
“There are things happening around the planet that are getting worse faster than climate scientists thought they would,” said Jonathan Overbeck, a climate scientist and dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability. “Managers are still dealing with its severity and how quickly it can change.”
Outdated weather forecast
The changing climate doesn’t just trump fire models. USA TODAY documented the growing effects of extreme weather events such as drought and precipitation in an investigation published in December. A month later, the newspaper reported that official estimates of rainfall frequency were outdated in at least 18 states, some of them as long as 50 years. And the estimates, made at the state or district level, never took into account the increase in heavy rainfall predicted by climate change.
When Texas officials met with the National Weather Service in 2018 to update their decades-old standards, they found that the probability of a 100-year storm — meaning there is a 1 in 100 chance of such a storm in any given year — quadrupled in Houston.
Outdated numbers make much of the country vulnerable to more floods.
“We have a disrupted national process to understand and predict the relationship between precipitation and its frequency,” Chad Bergenis, executive director of the Society of Flood Managers, told USA TODAY in January.
A bill requiring the National Weather Service to work on a more comprehensive way to make and update rainfall estimates more often passed in the US House of Representatives in May with bipartisan support. No vote took place in the Senate.
People are already paying the price for living with outdated forecasts of the weather in the West. One example is the allocation of water from the Colorado River. A legal agreement between seven Western nations defined water rights “forever” – written in 1922 and based on measured flows in the early 20th century, an exceptionally wet period.
He received the Nobel Prize in 2007 for his work on climate change, said Gerald Meehl, chief scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who was part of the team.
While no one thought much about climate change a hundred years ago, the failure to plan for the future continued through a massive drought in the West that lasted more than two decades and is the worst in the region in 1,200 years.
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“What we used to think of as natural is no longer natural,” said Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist who directs the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. “Dealing with that and building our infrastructure accordingly is the problem.”
“The speed with which the intensity of drought increases, the frequency with which groundwater is depleted, the rate at which ice is melting, these are all things that are changing much faster than we can keep up with it,” he said.
Ultimately, not all of the world’s climate and weather models will solve the problems we face, said Overbeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan. It will require political will to rapidly reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to address the root cause of climate change and to prepare for the different climate that comes our way.
“Really, what we have to do is build and plan for the future,” he said. The question is, what is this future? The problem with answering that is not our climate models, it’s our political system. We cannot predict what our leaders will do – or not do.”
Getting the right information for the right people
Most government planning and infrastructure decisions are based on extrapolation of weather patterns. If the state has rainfall records going back 140 years, it counts the number of times cloud eruptions have occurred during that period and determines the probability of a true gully washer hitting based on that date.
But these estimates are based on the relatively stable climate that the Earth has enjoyed for thousands of years.
This stability is now gone. Over the past 6000 years, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has remained constant at about 280 parts per million. This began to change during the Industrial Revolution, when humanity began burning massive amounts of coal and oil, pumping even greater amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In June it reached 420. We haven’t seen such levels in millions of years, since Earth was a greenhouse, and a planet flooded with oceans.
Climate scientists acknowledge that part of the problem is that the weather fluctuations they began predicting decades ago were so extreme that they could be dismissed as unlikely by those making decisions about how to plan for the future.
That future has arrived now, sooner than some expected, said Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, but that doesn’t always make it easier for people to accept what new climate models say is coming.
He said, “If you are a forecaster, you have to start thinking ‘we are in a new world.’” “When you start seeing broken records, that means you are going into uncharted territory.”
For a time, even scientists were conservative in how they interpreted the data.
Scientists run climate models thousands of times, watching the outcomes change as they use different variables. In general, the models are very good, as they say.
Models predict more extreme phenomena as the Earth warms and the weather becomes more volatile. These “spikes” appear often, said Brett Anderson, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather. “For 20 years now, we’ve been told that drier areas are going to get drier and wetter areas are going to get wetter,” he said.
But in the past, weather modelers tended to tweak things because that leads to better forecasts. “But maybe we need to pay attention to those spikes and not rule them out anymore,” Anderson said.
An example of this elevation is the thermal dome that overwhelmed Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in Canada in June 2021. Temperatures reached 108 degrees in Seattle and 112 in Portland. A later report by Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, called the event “unprecedented”.
However, while it was true that such temperatures had not been reported there before, models run by Meehl and colleagues predicted such heat waves in the Pacific Northwest — in a paper published 18 years ago.
The Oregon report noted that the state’s emergency operations plan includes emergencies for drought, earthquake, flood, tsunami, wildfire and terrorism — but not for extreme heat. She presented several recommendations to better prepare the country for future heat waves, noting that the events of that summer were not anomalies but rather indicators of what the country will face in the future.
“While efforts must continue to slow and stop contributing factors to climate change, we must also develop immediate and long-term strategies to adapt to today’s changing climate,” the report stated.
Scientists hope to see more consideration of extreme events. It’s no longer possible to make plans based on what happened in the past because the future will be very different, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“We need a bigger imagination when thinking about risks,” he said. “We need to think about climate change everywhere all the time in the context of all our infrastructure, both existing and particularly new.”
Contributing: Dina Foyles Pulver.
Elizabeth Wise covers climate and environmental issues for USA TODAY. Reach out to her at email@example.com. on Twitter @eweise. Dinah Voyles Pulver, who also covers climate and environmental issues, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or dpulver.
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