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New Report: In the Path of the Storm

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In August 2011, my family, like many others up and down the East Coast, braced for Hurricane Irene. My mom, who lives in coastal North Carolina, was first up, though the hurricane dodged just north-east of her part of the state leaving only minor damage. As Irene moved back over the Atlantic, I found myself nervously consulting topographical maps to determine that, yes, our house was far enough above sea level to be immune from any major storm surge.

The day Irene arrived we were ready with flashlights, water and food. I had steeled myself to once again bail out our basement – which had never flooded due to natural causes before doing so thrice in the last two years following massive rainstorms. Fortunately, Irene lost some of her punch before she hit Boston. We stayed dry and kept power, with our only major loss being a large chunk of tree that fell on our garage and driveway. A week later, though, my in-laws in the Binghamton, New York, area were forced to deal with yet another extreme weather event – the devastating, record flooding brought on by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, the area’s second “100-year” rainfall in two years.

Hurricane Irene and the Binghamton flood are just two of many weather-related disasters profiled in our new report, In the Path of the Storm: Global Warming, Extreme Weather and the Impacts of Weather-Related Disasters in the United States. The report’s main finding – that four out of five Americans live in counties that have experienced federally declared, weather-related disasters since 2006 – shows that extreme weather has the ability to affect us all, changing lives and altering fortunes in a heartbeat.

In researching this report, the word that kept coming up was “unprecedented.” Never in recorded history has the Susquehanna River flooded as it did last year, or has an October snowfall dumped as much snow on the Northeast as it did last year, or have average summer temperatures reached the heights they did in Oklahoma and Texas last year, or has the state of New Jersey received as much rainfall in a month as it did in August last year. 

Science has told us that global warming will result in changing weather at the extremes – more intense downpours, more powerful hurricanes, hotter days, and possibly worsening drought in some places – and has even begun to document that some of these changes have begun to occur. But, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, it is getting so that you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows – that is, the impacts of global warming are beginning to be become so apparent as to be discernible to the naked eye.

In case you do need a weatherman, though, you could do worse than meteorologist Jeff Masters, founder of the Weather Underground web site.  He recently wrote:

"The natural weather rhythms I've grown to used to during my 30 years as a meteorologist have become significantly disrupted over the past few years. Many of Earth's major atmospheric circulation patterns have seen significant shifts and unprecedented behavior; new patterns that were unknown have emerged, and extreme weather events were incredibly intense and numerous during 2010 - 2011.  … [W]atching the weather over the past two years has been like watching a famous baseball hitter on steroids - an analogy used in the past by climate scientists Tony Broccoli and Jerry Meehl. We're used to seeing the slugger hit the ball out of the park, but not with the frequency he's hitting them now that he's on steroids. Moreover, some of the home runs now land way back in the seats where no one has ever been able to hit a home run before. We can't say that any particular home run would not have occurred without the steroids, but the increase in home runs and the unprecedented ultra-long balls are highly suspicious."

We have no choice but to prepare ourselves for the increases in some forms of extreme weather that will result from the global warming pollution already emitted to the atmosphere – the societal equivalent of boarding up the windows and filling the bathtub with water. But we have a responsibility to do what we can to prevent matters from getting a whole lot worse by cutting our emissions of global warming pollutants. The solutions exist. The time to get started is now.