03 July 2012

Adapted to the weather?

I'm going to do some complaining about the recent power failures from Chicago through the Washington DC area, and there will be some relevance to talk about climate change adaptation.  But first, a few words about my background to be making complaints.  I'm not someone who has never been without electricity for an extended period before, nor, for that matter, without running water.  I've hand-pumped my water for some weeks.  And I carried it a couple hundred meters in buckets to water my grandmother's recent plantings in the hot and dry, by the standards then, summers of 1987-1988 in the midwest. While I like modern technologies, not least because it is why I reached age 10, I know how to live ok on a late 19th century level, and have done so.

In discussions about climate change, I hear that "Don't worry, we'll adapt to it." and
"Mitigating climate change means returning to 19th century technology."

I'll leave aside whether the recent derecho represents climate change.  And even more so the question of whether the change has a human fingerprint on it.  I live in the national Capitol area for what is supposed to be the richest and most technologically advanced country on the earth.  And many, large population, counties around me are among the wealthiest in the country.  If any area should be well-adapted to current weather, forget to climate change, it is this area.  Let's just consider events already in hand.
The storm:
  • Killed power for half the national Capitol area (1.5 million of about 3 million people lost power)
  • Took down 911 (emergency -- life-threatening emergency -- phone service) in some counties
  • Took down land line phone service in parts of the area
  • Took down cell phone service in parts of the area
  • 24 hours after the storm hit, about half of those who had lost power still didn't have it back
  • The restoration of electricity to everybody is expected to take a week
  • Registered only about 50 mph (about 22 m/s, 80 kph) winds in a span of 30-60 minutes at the official recording station (DCA), with gusts about 40% faster. (different figures in other parts of the country that were hit).
One observation about those facts, is that none of them are exceptional for this area.  The last time such a thing happened was ... August 2011, due to rain from Irene (which was not hurricane force in our area, hurricane force being 74 mph / 34 m/s).  Thunderstorms do ordinarily pass 50 mph winds.  They don't do it as often in this area as Chicago, but it's still a normal thing.

This wealthy area of a wealthy country is not adapted for weather it already gets on about an annual basis.   It's nonsense to claim that "we'll adapt to climate change".

The power outages meant that large population did move back to largely 19th century technology -- no phone, no electric, some losing hot water (electric ignition to maintain the heater, sometimes hot water heating), no refrigeration, and so on.  Failure to adapt to our weather means that we already experience that change in technology level at the whim of the weather.  Alarmists say that this is what would happen if we did anything to mitigate climate change.  But they're clearly not even reading the local news -- it already happens, and with no efforts at climate change mitigation.  Myself, I think if we put some thought in to it, we could decrease or eliminate the down sides of any climate mitigation plans.  Certainly it'd be hard to do worse than the current situation of routine weather crashing phone and electric systems for days at a time in our very wealthy country.

The further insult to injury is, this area can expect to get hurricanes -- actually landfalling events with hurricane force winds, for hours in a row.  Everywhere on the Atlantic coast from Florida to Long Island, New York can expect it.  An area that is unprepared for 1 hour of 50 mph winds is certainly not going to fare well with several hours of 74+ mph winds.

Climate change adaptation is piffle.  Pie in the sky nonsense.  We are not adapted to weather we already get routinely.


Turboblocke said...

You make a good point. Adaption is not going to be a painless, cheap option.

John Mashey said...

It might be a good idea to halt any Federal government expansion in the area and distribute it to safer places around the country, especially to states that actually take climate change seriously, unlike VA.

Robert Grumbine said...

I think that there are few painless, cheap options. What we can do is think seriously about options, whether on prevention, mitigation, or adaptation and go for what looks least bad. Some of them, particularly on the prevention or mitigation side, actually have benefits. But the ostrich approach just isn't going to do well for any ordinary person. People with multiple homes, in widely separated parts of the country (or planet) are ok. The rest of us have real effects from a power grid that can't deal with normal winds, and so forth.

VA is ignoring present weather events. The sea level changes are already happening. For fear of some 'one world' conspiracy or other, a district has voted to ignore the sea level changes they already have experienced since 1950. They decided to ignore sea level change entirely. NC at least was allowing as how sea level does change. They just decided to ignore the science on the subject in favor of looking only to the past.

After 9/11, there was much talk about decentralizing the government, so that fewer things would be in one place to be affected by a single attack. In the decade since, more has moved towards the DC metro area. Irrespective of power outages, that was the wrong move. The crumbling infrastructure, though, makes it even worse an idea.

The National Weather Service took one step forward and one step backward in this vein. For the past decade or more, there have been two computer systems for processing weather data and running the weather models. One in Gaithersburg, MD, and one in Fairmont, WV. The computer systems did survive the outages -- not least because they have their own fairly major generators on site. But the areas both were in were hit by the same storm only hours apart. The next systems will be in Reston, VA (hit by this storm) and Orlando, FL (not hit by this one). I'm not sure putting one in a major hurricane zone is that great an idea. Then again, the National Hurricane Center is in Miami, FL, an even better target for hurricanes. Still, it is unlikely that the same storm would hit both Orlando and Reston.

Michael Tobis said...

I think you are being a tad unfair here. The conditions that hit DC were extraordinary but not unprecedented. What is unprecedented is the width of the region around DC that experienced comparable conditions. This means that the repair resources that normally could be concentrated on a local area are now dispersed around an area of several states.

The event was meteorologically bizarre. Even modest derechos are rare east of the Allegheny range. There is no clear precedent I have heard of for a disruption of this scale in an area as densely populated as the Northern Virginia- DC-Baltimore-Philadelphia area.

The good news is that this was not really “ordinary extraordinary” weather. That’s the bad news, too.

Robert Grumbine said...

I might be a tad unfair, but not more than that. In the large scale, yes, the system was extraordinary. Having winds in excess of 50 mph across a line a few hundred km long is unusual, at least coming from the west, as this did. Winds of that speed and scale are not so unusual coming from the east -- by way of hurricanes. Rather, for my time in the area, for tropical storms, most recently, Irene. That's been two that did landfall and one that was forecast to but missed us. 3 in 20 years -- again, not terribly unusual events (or near misses).

The repair resources 'needed' are coming from many states, true. But why did the power go out in the first place? Especially, why did it go out in so many homes at once? The power companies in the DC area experienced local weather, not the few hundred km (several hundred thousand square km). The local (to DC area) power systems experienced, for the most part, weather they can expect on an annual basis in their few hundred to couple thousand square miles (several thousand square km). The 1.5 million who lost power in the Washington, DC area were divided between at least 4 different power companies. Winds of 50 mph through entire counties are not at all unusual, even if winds from the same storm from south of Washington DC to north of Philadelphia of that scale are. Yet each county lost power to about half its population from these entirely expectable local winds.

The 'need' for assistance is a different matter. If you've slashed your maintenance budget and crews for years, as one of the more notorious companies in this area (located in one of the wealthiest counties in the area), then of course you 'need' a lot of help. When, not if, you suffer a large outage (this is at least the 3rd outage since the start of 2010 of over 400,000 customers for that company, lasting for some up to at least a week in each) you of course can't deal with it and need help from far away. Lots of it. But this is not a matter of exceptional weather. It is a matter of having cut your repair and maintenance staff so far for so long that, as a lineman for that company I know was saying last year, they can barely keep up with the maintenance even when there's no weather at all.

That's what makes talk of climate adaptation piffle. By managerial intent, both in corporations and by way of our political decisions, we are now unable to manage locally ordinary weather. If you can't/won't cope with what are already annual events, you can't/won't cope with things that were 30 year events but become 10 year events in a changed climate.

Dol said...

Guardian article from today: UK government also cutting back on flood defence budgets.

It's a grubby irony: people most vocally arguing "we can adapt / the costs of adaptation won't be as onerous as the costs of mitigation" are pretty much always anti-state-spending. Who do they think is going to carry out this adaptation? Presumably when they say, "we'll adapt," they mean "those of us who can afford it will retreat to the best positions and adapt there, everyone else can go screw themselves." (Not that there are going to be any safe places to retreat to if we manage to tip the earth into a whole new climate regime...)

Dol said...

Subscribing to comments...