My year started out with a grand plan of house projects to complete before summer hit. Installing crown molding, changing window casings, and repainting the living and dining rooms—all were to be done by mid-April, when I could change over to working outside on the yard, gardens, and boat. Then came our record-warm March: Inside projects were put on hold while outside ones suddenly needed to be tackled.
While trying to enjoy sitting outside during our 101-degree Fourth of July, I recalled how climate change affected my planning earlier in the year. And I wondered what we’re doing as a community to adapt to climate change so that tomorrow’s extremes don’t catch us off guard as much as they do today.
I’ve lived here most of my life, so I know the unpredictability of weather can be, well, rather predictable. But we do have to admit that weather extremes here—and elsewhere—are getting more significant, and occurring more frequently. Regardless of whether it’s due to manmade greenhouse gases, polar ice caps are melting more quickly, increasing ocean levels. Glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. (Did you know that Glacier National Park may be completely out of glaciers by 2020?) The higher temperatures are evaporating more water and creating more clouds . . . and we’re getting larger storms.
Consider for a few minutes the tornados, floods, hailstorms, record temperatures, and other weather extremes that have made the news during the past few years. Or, just think about the year thus far. The spring’s prolonged heat wave produced the hottest March since record keeping began in 1895. There were 671 records broken, and April marked the end of the warmest 12-month stretch in U.S. history, according to the National Weather Service. Through July 4, there were 224 new all-time high temperature records set across the country, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
There’s also the cost. Whether it’s flooding in Duluth, crop damage in Iowa, straight-line wind damage in Baltimore, or tornadoes in Atlanta, everywhere you look there’s another report of weather damages in the tens of millions of dollars. This doesn’t include things such as business interruption costs, or all the food that had to be thrown out by 3 million people who were without power for several days in early July.
It’s impossible to put a price tag on all the weather-related damages nationwide. But NOAA tallied 134 U.S. weather/climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total for these storms alone exceeded $880 billion.
As such weather extremes continue to escalate, we’re being forced to change how we live. Personally, I bought a generator (my food won’t spoil next time the power fails), some flashlights, and 10 gallons of drinking water. And I’m shelling out more for home and property insurance—not because of anything I experienced, but because of all the weather-related costs my insurer is covering across the country.
But what about our urban planners? What are they doing to adapt to climate change? After all, every snowstorm, flood, hailstorm, straight-line wind burst, tornado, and other extreme weather event throws off how, or whether, we can operate our businesses.
Since 1989, Minneapolis and St. Paul have attempted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Minneapolis later added emissions reduction targets to its plans. Neither, however, appears to be delving into ways to better design and develop their cities to cope with increased heat waves, reduced air quality, increasing insect and waterborne diseases, stronger storms, and increased periods of flooding and drought that are expected to hit the Upper Midwest in future decades. (Minneapolis is, however, conducting meetings to update its climate action plan.)
Meanwhile, other cities already have such plans. Chicago, which has seen its average temperature rise by nearly 3 degrees since 1980, believes it could become the next New Orleans by as early as 2050. City planners anticipate summer temperatures by then may reach 90 degrees or higher on more than 70 days per year (compared with an average of 15 during the 20th century), and 100 degrees or higher on more than 30 days per year. They’re also expecting higher humidity, heavier and more damaging rainstorms, and increased frequency of floods. As this occurs, the city will likely see an escalation in heat-related deaths; increase in freeze-thaw damages to buildings, bridges, and roads; and possibly the introduction of termites, which currently cannot handle winter temperatures.
To prepare, leaders developed a Chicago Climate Action Plan to try to reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases, while implementing changes in urban planning. A few outcomes include banning the planting of Illinois’s state tree, the white oak, and instead planting swamp oaks and gum trees from the South. Alleyways are being repaved with materials that are permeable to water. Air-conditioning systems are being considered for all of its public schools, most of which have yet to have cooling systems. And vegetation is being added to rooftops in areas considered today to be the city’s hottest zones.
Los Angeles also has an action plan addressing the climate it expects to have by 2050. By then, city planners anticipate residents will experience three times as many days over 95 degrees as they have today. And New York City is developing action plans in anticipation of flooding from rising ocean levels, according to the New York Times. Elsewhere, the Navy has established a task force on climate change that says it should be preparing for the equivalent of an extra sea as the Arctic ice melts.
While all of this sounds like a line from the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow, it’s important for us to realize how seriously other cities are taking this issue, and to ask our civic leaders to do the same. Communities doing so today will not only be better prepared, but better off financially 40 years from now. And their residents will experience less weather-related business interruptions, commuter delays, and damages to personal property, not to mention fewer threats to their families’ personal safety.