By Christopher Bartlett
Special To The Standard
As Anne Macksoud and Joby Thompson surveyed the extensive flood damage to the house, they were philosophical. “We’re lucky. We’ve had huge support from family and the community, and we’re going to be okay,” said Joby Thompson. “But a lot of lives were changed by this event, and many weren’t as fortunate as we have been.”
A lot of lives certainly have been changed in the past 12 days. Many have lost a great deal, and some are still struggling to recover. For now, the community is appropriately focused on providing support, cleaning up, and rebuilding. But soon minds will turn to other questions. How did this happen to us? Could it occur again? And what can we do about it? It will be time to start examining causes and cures.
Following our near-record winter snows and devastating spring floods, Vermonters had already endured a year of punishing weather even before Irene’s devastation. But we weren’t alone. In February, the nation was hit by the “Stormageddon” blizzard; in April, a record 875 deadly tornadoes struck the South and Midwest; in May, the Mississippi flooded 7 million acres; and in August the Southwest’s exceptional drought marked its anniversary with raging wildfires.
Globally, 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year on record. And the warming continues: July 2011 was the 317th consecutive month that was hotter than the 20th century average. Last year was also the wettest year in the earth’s recorded history with 13% more precipitation than the previous record year. In this context, meteorologists’ definitions of “one hundred year weather events” have lost all meaning.
For those seeking scientific verification that these extreme events are not random, the US National Academy of Sciences’ recent review of climate science is now unequivocal. It’s a “settled fact” that “the earth’s system is warming, and much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”
Still, a lot of people remain skeptical. The proportion of the general public who think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures is only 58%. But here’s an interesting contrast. If you poll climatologist scientists who actively publish research on climate change, 97.5% believe our carbon emissions are contributing significantly to global warming.
Nonetheless, climate scientists are a conservative lot. Historically they have only been willing to say that extreme weather events were “consistent” with predictions of climate change. No more. As the head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research said recently, “Now we can say that particular events would not have happened in the same way without global warming.”
Take hurricanes. The US government’s “Global Climate Change Impacts Report” concluded that our warming oceans are causing hurricanes to become more intense and dangerous. Several forces are at work. Sea surface temperatures are warmer, and because warm water fuels storms, even a 1 degree increase can add 20 mph to the hurricanes winds, and 40% to the storm surge.
Also, because oceans have warmed, atmospheric water vapor has increased, significantly increasing the rainfall hurricanes bring. And global warming has also led to the melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, causing sea levels to rise – in Boston, 11.8 inches since 1990. And for every one foot rise, storm surge damage increases by about 50%.
Together, these forces add up to more frequent, more powerful, more damaging hurricanes. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports a doubling in category 4 and 5 hurricanes since the 1940’s. And their model suggests that there will be another doubling during the 21st century.
So how is all this connected to the destruction that Irene brought to Vermont? The bottom line is that in future, warmer oceans will bring more severe hurricanes further north, and that storms like Irene can no longer be considered “one hundred year events” in our part of the world.
Governor Peter Shumlin believes the conclusions are clear. As he told the New York Times, “Any objective scientist will tell you that as a result of climate change, we’re going to get more intense storms in New England. We’ve got to rethink where you build houses, where you build schools, where you build highways and how you build them. We have to redefine our flood plains.”
But responding to this new reality is more than just a job for government. Convinced that all Vermonters needed to be involved in combatting climate change, Governor Shumlin has formed the first-in-the-nation Climate Cabinet. Chaired by Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz, this new body is charged with the task of convincing Vermonters to reduce their greenhouse emissions and their reliance on fossil fuels. It’s an initiative that makes us all part of the solution.
Over these past 12 days, nobody has been untouched by the impact of our extreme weather. And with evidence regarding its cause is clear, what’s a thinking person do? It’s a question that Anne Macksoud was pondering as she watched the Ottauquechee River waters rush through her house.
“It’s clear that carbon emissions are the cause of so much devastation and suffering here in Vermont and all over the world,” she said. “It’s my hope that we will not only join together as a community to significantly lower our own carbon footprint, but that we’ll put constant pressure on the federal government to make a transition to non-carbon fuels while we still have time.”
So an event that many of us thought of as a once-in-a-lifetime natural disaster is neither. It’s unlikely to be rare, and certainly isn’t natural. Instead, it’s an early warning signal that we need to act forcefully and urgently at the national, state, community, and personal level. It’s the least we can do.
By Christopher Bartlett