Aug 2, 2022 - Energy & Environment

We haven't built for this climate

Illustration of a road with dashes of fire down the center line

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

In the past week, floods, heat waves and wildfires across the U.S. have killed dozens and reshaped entire communities from Kentucky to northern California.

Why it matters: This summer has demonstrated again and again that our infrastructure is not sufficient to withstand the changed climate of today, let alone the impacts on the horizon.

Driving the news: The past week featured two 1-in-1,000-year rainstorms that struck communities about 400 miles apart: St. Louis, Missouri and Hazard, Kentucky.

  • In St. Louis, rainfall rates overwhelmed drainage systems and caused rivers and creeks to overflow, washing out roadways and forcing swift water rescues to be conducted.
  • In Kentucky, water moved so forcefully that it pulverized school buses, washed mobile homes away and destroyed roads and bridges.
  • The torrential downpours in eastern Kentucky have killed at least 37. Even now, homes remain cut off from the outside world, without power and surrounded by swiftly moving water.

In the Pacific Northwest, the past week brought a record-breaking heat wave that wasn't as severe as the 2021 extreme heat event, but lasted longer.

  • Seattle set a record for its longest-streak of days with highs of 90°F or greater. In Portland, there were a record seven straight days with highs of 95°F or greater in a city where the average high temperature in late July is in the low 80s.
  • At least seven deaths have been blamed on the heat in the Northwest, but the toll in a region where few have air conditioning could be far higher due to the length of the heat event and the difficulty of determining heat-related fatalities.
  • The lack of widespread air conditioning caused cities to get creative with cooling shelters, as Portland area shopping malls and county libraries were kept open late, for example.

And in California, the week also brought a wildfire that stunned scientists due to its growth rate and extreme behavior.

  • The McKinney Fire took just 48 hours to grow from its initial ignition in Siskiyou County, California to more than 50,000 acres, making it the state's biggest blaze so far this year.
  • The blaze lofted ash into the stratosphere, and formed its own thunderstorms due to the intense heat it generated.
  • The heat wave, long-running drought and transient weather conditions all played a role in this extreme fire behavior. At least two people have died in the fire so far, while at least 2,000 have been forced to evacuate from their homes.

The big picture: We have long designed our infrastructure as if the climate conditions and extremes of the past, such as the definition of a 100-year, 500-year or even 1,000-year flood in a particular location, would hold true in the future.

  • With climate change, that is no longer the case, as outlier events trend closer to the norm.
  • "Years of wearing down from weather events have left our built environment incapable of withstanding heavier precipitation on a per event basis, more intense wind impacts, prolonged temperature extremes, or more unusual wildfire behavior," said Steven Bowen, head of catastrophe insight at Aon, via email.
  • Population growth also contributes to our precariousness, he said.

The U.S., like other parts of the globe, has been seeing an acceleration in the pace and intensity of extreme weather events of late. When it rains, it rains harder. When it's hot, it gets hotter and stays that way longer than it used to.

  • Climate science is unambiguous when it comes to heat waves, finding that as the climate warms in response to human burning of fossil fuels for energy, these events are more likely to occur and more intense.
  • And when there are wildfires, they behave like nothing veteran firefighters have seen before.
  • "One thing is clear: The modeled climate impacts we assumed were 25 to 50 years away are in some cases already occurring today," Bowen said. "The cost-benefit to invest now to save real money tomorrow should be an important driving factor to how we assess risk and limit potential physical damage and loss of human life."
  • To some extent, the federal government recognizes this, with funds under the bipartisan infrastructure law directed at hardening infrastructure and building new projects with climate change in mind.

Yes, but: There is a chance that even now we are underestimating what Mother Nature is capable of due to human-caused climate change.

  • Some climate scientists and activists raise the possibility that climate change is already resulting in surprises missing in their models, such as the breaching of the once unthinkable temperature of 104°F (40°C) in the U.K., for example.
  • If this is the case, we all better buckle up, as more unpleasant surprises surely lie ahead.
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