Raining our way to climate change

Raining our way to climate change

August 18th, 2013 in Opinion Times

It's mid-August, and Chattanooga already has seen a year's worth of rain in 2013.

Just a fluke, you think? One of those cyclical teases by Mother Nature? Think again.

Late last year, the University of Tennessee released a first-of-its kind study to predict climate-change induced heat waves and rainfall for the top 20 cities in the eastern United States. The findings put the Tennessee Valley in the cross hairs of climate craziness - more intense heat waves and drastically wetter weather - over coming decades.

"Heat waves will become more severe in most regions of the eastern United States, and both the Northeast and Southeast will see a drastic increase in precipitation," said Joshua Fu, a civil and environmental engineering professor who used Oak Ridge's Titan and UT's Kraken supercomputers to analyze historical weather data and future expectations for carbon fuels and the ozone they create.

Fu's work calculated that Nashville will see heat-wave temperature rises of almost 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher than now, and Memphis will see heat wave temps up by almost 4 degrees.

But it is the rainfall impacts that may be most noticeable.

By his analysis, the Southeast will experience 35 percent or higher increases in precipitation. For Chattanooga, which normally receives about 53 inches of rain a year, that would mean another 17 inches of rain.

As of this week, we stand at about 19 or 20 inches above normal rainfall for this time of year. For the most part, we've escaped the scorching heat waves that other parts of the country have felt this summer.

So what? People and animals will adapt, right?

Maybe. But there will be losers. And winners. Mostly there will be lots of money to lose. Or make.

Fu's research was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He was looking to predict the future potential for heat waves because they spark pest-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.

TVA recently noted that the dams on the Tennessee River system saved Chattanooga from $44 million in flood damages just in July when the region was drenched with rain again and again. But with the Chickamauga Dam being more than 70 years old with a crippled lock and a new one stalled in construction because of congressional inaction, how many more floods can it withstand?

Meanwhile, across the region, garden crops have neared ripening only to suddenly rot under the constant dampness.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that 70 million people live in the Southeast, many along the thousands of miles of coastline. Those coasts will likely experience stronger hurricanes, storm surges and sea level rise. A two-foot increase in the average global sea level by 2100 would result in a 3.5-foot increase in sea level at Galveston, Texas, and New Orleans - significant sites of our nation's oil refining.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused a loss of over 200 square miles of coastal land in Louisiana, and the 2005 hurricane season caused over 1,800 deaths and catastrophic damage to personal property and public infrastructure.

Most Americans have no trouble connecting the potential health and financial dangers of a water-covered highway or a tornado, yet we often can't quite make that broader-picture connection to contemplate the consequences of climate change.

But look at it through the lens of prevention and preparation. Imagine the jobs that can be created to build or retrofit alternative energy plants that would allow us to abandon carbon polluting ones.

This week in Pittsburgh, Pa., U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle and Regional EPA Administrator Shawn Garvin brought together local labor and environmental leaders at the United Steelworkers headquarters to talk about industrial carbon pollution and its risks for public health and opportunities for jobs.

Fred Redmond, head of the Steelworkers, said preparing for climate change, if done right, "will fuel economic growth. [and] ... Steelworkers have every intention to see to it that the President's plan goes forward."

It's a rally the administration is carrying around the country to highlight a plan for EPA to set carbon standards for new and existing power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 3 billion tons by 2030. Some 40 percent of the carbon pollution emitted into the air in the U.S. comes from power plants, which have not previously been subject to carbon controls.

Here's another idea. Consumers should help, too. Use less electricity. Don't be a loser.