My Power’s Still On, But Extreme-Weather Risks are Growing

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Extreme weather, Learn

Peering out at the wintry mix falling on the 30 inches already on my roof, and hoping the power doesn’t go out when it turns to ice later, I found today’s blog topic particularly relevant: more storms of greater intensity due to climate change are likely to equal more damage and more customer-service headaches for utilities and businesses that keep the world moving and working.

The “monster storm” stretching 2,000 miles Tuesday from Oklahoma north to Chicago and east to Boston, is being described as “historic” by the weathermen for its massive scale. Blizzard conditions closed interstates and schools, canceled thousands of flights, and downed power lines in some locations.

The current “Arctic Oscillation,” described by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, is an unusual jet stream pattern that has released frigid Arctic air south over the U.S. while northern latitudes have been unusually warm in December and January.

While no single weather phenomenon can be blamed on climate change with certainty (because climate is, after all, a series of weather events that add up to a region’s average temperature and precipitation), some climate researchers are asking whether melting Arctic sea ice might be contributing to the pattern that has brought intense winters to Europe and the Northeast U.S. It’s a question that will require more years of data to answer definitively.

Nonetheless, extreme weather events, including more frequent and intense storms and greater likelihood of flooding and drought, are expected as Earth’s overall temperature rises with increasing carbon pollution.

In fact, an article in ClimateWire (subscription required) reports that the U.S. was struck with more natural disasters in 2010 than ever before. The company Munich Reinsurance counted 247 blizzards, thunderstorms, and floods – a record level of frequency at least partly attributed to climate change.  Total disasters in 2010 (also tied with 2005 for the hottest year on record) accounted for tens of billions of dollars in damages, and compared to a total of 60 disasters in 1980.

Part of the increased risk is also due to human decisions to live and develop structures in harm’s way, according to the reinsurance company. Their statistics indicate that worldwide, disasters have doubled in 30 years, from less than 400 in 1980 to 950 in 2010, though these numbers do include earthquakes, which are not linked to climate change.

Meanwhile, improved customer service in an age of climate change is emerging as a top issue in the energy trade news. Utilities and telecommunications companies are beginning to think about how to improve their preparedness for more frequent large-scale natural disasters by having plans to minimize service disruptions and improve responsiveness when emergencies happen. For example, utilities are being advised to establish duplicate or back-up contact/call centers in diverse geographic locations, so that communications with affected customers aren’t disrupted when they are most needed.

With insurance companies now paying attention to the increased risks of climate change, it would seem prudent to act where possible to prevent avoidable damages by reducing carbon pollution. The costs of natural disaster damages should be factored into the equation of whether it is worth it to act on climate change now.

Luckily, here in my snow-blanketed neighborhood, the power’s still on – for now.

Lisa Hayden is climate change writer for The Nature Conservancy.

Photo by: Flickr® user Karen Goodman (Power lines in St. Louis coated with ice during the Feb. 1 blizzard.) Used under a Creative Commons license

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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