A Changing Reality

What does global warming mean to emergency managers?

by Jessica Weidling / September 19, 2007

For Seattle residents, rain - and lots of it - is a fact of life. But they'd never seen a month quite like November 2006. With 15.59 inches of rain - including snowfall and hail - it set the record for wettest month, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center. It was the most rain the Emerald City had ever seen in a one-month span, in 115 years of record keeping.

If that weren't enough, mid-December brought supercharged winds of 60 to 90 mph that cut power to about 1 million people, some of whom lived in the dark for prolonged periods.

"It wasn't just for a couple of hours, a couple of days," said Eric Holdeman, former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management. "There were folks without power for 10 days in isolated areas, or even longer than that."

That same month, drought plagued parts of Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma; thunderstorms and tornadoes whipped through the South; a cyclone lashed the Eastern coastline from South Carolina to Virginia; and the earliest snowfall on record fell on Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Worldwide patterns show an increase in heavy precipitation and intense droughts caused by a warmer atmosphere, increases in water vapor and a rising sea-surface temperature - all results of global warming.

Holdeman, now principal at ICF International's Emergency Management and Homeland Security team, holds last winter's unusually hazardous weather events as anecdotal evidence that our weather reality is shifting.

"Whatever the cause is, the weather is changing," Holdeman said. "There's been any number of extreme weather events happening."

Scientists may not agree on some of the possible effects of global warming, but most do agree that it's happening, said Gabriel Vecchi, research scientist at the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J.

According to a February report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the nation is already seeing warming effects in the Western mountains and melting of the snow pack; with increased winter flooding and summer warming; through pests and wildfires plaguing forest environments; with the intensifying of heat waves; and in hurricanes pounding coastal cities.

Unfortunately any changes related to the planet's increased temperature will be magnified in developing countries, where resources won't be available to delay or minimize effects. But in richer nations, like the United States, where the resources are forthcoming, it's time to adapt and plan for changes we might see, or are seeing now.


Lemming-Like March
The most egregious global warming effects will occur on global warming's frontlines - at the poles, where there's damage to ecosystems and thawing of glaciers and ice sheets, and on small islands, where beach erosion and storm surges are expected to further deteriorate coastlines, according to the IPCC. 

Though most scientists agree that global warming is happening, the question of how exactly it will manifest remains. Many believe, however, that warming oceans may be contributing to more devastating hurricane seasons.

The 2004-2005 period was one of the most active 24 months ever witnessed in the Atlantic basin, setting records for number of hurricanes and tying the 1950-1951 record for most major hurricanes with 13. 

But hurricanes don't just endanger lives; they also threaten people's livelihoods, businesses and homes, and cities' economies. And because tropical storms tend to hit the United States in its sweet spot - expensive and growing coastal stretches from Texas to Maine - they represent one of the country's gravest storm challenges.

Hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast region during the 2004 and 2005 storm seasons produced seven of the 13 costliest hurricanes to hit the United States since 1900 (after adjusting for inflation), according to an April 2007 report by the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

According to the NOAA, Hurricane Katrina cost approximately $60 billion in insurance losses to the Gulf Coast region - almost triple the $21 billion in insurance losses from Hurricane Andrew, the second costliest hurricane, which struck south Florida in 1992. 

This year's hurricane season, from June 1 to Nov. 30, already looks grim. Experts at the NOAA Climate Prediction Center project a 75 percent chance the season will be above normal. They predict a strong La Nina - which favors more Atlantic hurricanes, while El Nino favors fewer hurricanes - will cause three to five major hurricanes.

Also a factor is a phenomenon called "the tropical multidecadal signal" - the notion that two or three decades of lessened storm activity are followed by two or three decades of increased activity. The period since 1995 has wreaked conditions for more hurricanes.

Yet despite signs of a rough hurricane season ahead, a surprising phenomenon is occurring: People are increasingly moving to the Atlantic coast. Census Bureau data shows that in 1950, 10.2 million people were threatened by Atlantic hurricanes; today more than 34.9 million are threatened, according to USA Today.

"The areas along the United States Gulf and Atlantic coasts where most of this country's hurricane-related fatalities have occurred are also experiencing the country's most significant growth in population," the National Hurricane Center report confirmed.

But since coastal communities won't stop corralling newcomers, the report concluded that communities themselves should take action.

Jim O'Brien, professor emeritus of meteorology and oceanography at Florida State University, said emergency managers and policymakers should address the hurricane issue by enforcing stricter building codes, readdressing evacuation strategies and educating people about the imminent problem.

However, more drastic action must be taken to stop people's risky behavior, according to Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The coastal migration is made possible, he said, through an unwise mix of state and federal policies, like government regulation of property and flood insurance (which covers storm surges), and federal disaster relief given to flooded regions. While such policies help people in the short term, Emmanuel explained, they also enable the risky behavior to continue.  

Scientists have long feared America's vulnerability to hurricanes because its shores are lined with some of the nation's wealthiest residents. Emanuel, in conjunction with nine scientists, released a July 2006 statement about the U.S. hurricane problem: "We are optimistic that continued research will eventually resolve much of the current debate over the effect of climate change on hurricanes. But the more urgent problem of our lemming-like march to the sea requires immediate and sustained attention."        


Preparedness Challenge
Paul Milelli, director of public safety for Palm Beach County, Fla., contends that global warming's effects may inherently force people to change their ways.

"If we start having to build homes to meet a 200 mph wind, the cost would probably stifle some growth," he said, "and then [there's] the fear factor of people moving in."

Because the county uses an all-hazards approach, emergency planning won't change much with global warming in the equation, he said.

"The economy is just going to be affected tremendously, and that, to me, is going to be the biggest concern. Because we can prepare our people for a hurricane, whether it's a Category 1 or a Category 5, and how we prepare the people really doesn't change - except that as the categories get higher, we start asking people to make their plans earlier and earlier."

For a statewide evacuation, Floridians would have to begin leaving days before the hurricane hit - a logistic impracticality. 

"It's bigger than me. It's bigger than what I can plan for as a planner of the county," said Milelli, whose 31-year emergency management career ends in January when he plans to retire in Wisconsin - far away from hurricanes.

To help combat storm destruction, the Gulf Regional Planning Commission in Mississippi focuses on hurricane preparation as well as planning and redevelopment.

"We're certainly well aware of the dramatic impacts of climate change and also the need for looking outside of our localized area when we're starting to talk about the impacts of climate change," said Elaine Wilkinson, the commission's executive director.

The commission is working to build bridges that withstand high winds (similar to the effects of an earthquake), and building up seawalls to match the roadbed.

After Hurricane Katrina, the commission took an extra year to engineer its long-range transportation to plan for major storms. Transportation planning is important to ensure safe evacuation, she said.    

Wilkinson was also involved in a U.S. government study on how global warming could affect the nation's coastal transportation systems. The study, which just released its first phase for scientific review, concluded that with climate change, the sea level is rising and the land is sinking, according to a National Public Radio news report.

Listening to scientists provided a good opportunity for Wilkinson, who said scientists must share global warming findings with people who can effect change.

"We need to find a way to bring the scientific data into the planning process," Wilkinson said. "That's something that'll challenge us. But we're very much in need of information to make some good decisions."


Ask the Question
Working with science, King County integrated global warming policies into its government.

In October 2005, the county sponsored a conference to understand Washington's climate changes in the coming 20, 50 and 100 years, and identify approaches to adapt to climate change predictions.

The Climate Impacts Group (CIG), along with King County, developed conference materials, including Pacific Northwest climate change scenarios. CIG, which is funded by Washington University's Center for Science in the Earth System in Seattle and by NOAA, explores climate science with an eye to the public interest in the region. The group is one of eight NOAA teams that assess regional climate change in the United States.

From the conference, the CIG and King County established a relationship and jointly wrote Adapting to Global Warming - a Guidebook, to be released this November following a peer review process.

As a resource for regional leaders, the guidebook outlines King County's global warming approach, addressing its water supply, wastewater and floodplain management, agriculture, forestry and biodiversity. The county approved an aggressive levee improvement plan and adopted a climate plan in February that includes a two-page outline for the King County Office of Emergency Management to revise its strategies given projected climate changes. 

In the guidebook, the CIG tells how scientists can communicate climate change information to emergency managers and policy leaders. But government officials are also responsible for opening the dialog.

Elizabeth Willmott, global warming coordinator for King County, stepped into her position upon its creation in January 2007, and works to coordinate projects, ideas and information related to the county's climate change mitigation and preparedness plans.

"What we suggest simply," Willmott said, "is that regional leaders ask the climate question, 'How is climate change going to affect my region?'"

Just asking, she said, can plant the issue in people's minds. 

Though weather seems to be telling us something about how climate change will impact our future, there's uncertainty in many circles about what to do to prepare and how to mitigate its consequences.

ICF's Holdeman said we must focus on finding global warming's regional effects and work to lessen them now.

"We end up being so reactive as a society, and certainly the United States is," he said. "We don't address issues - like Social Security or Medicaid. Everybody knows it's a problem, but we're not going to do anything about it until it's staring us in the face, and there's a trillion dollar deficit."

It's up to emergency managers, he said, to spread the word and ensure global warming consequences are known. 

"For emergency managers themselves," Holdeman said, "if we're not talking about it generally and trying to educate elected officials about it and the hazards, then you're counting on them to stumble on it as an issue."