Mayors, Governors, CEOs, and Citizens Take Note – National Climate Assessment At Your Service!

September 16, 2011
Brenda Ekwurzel
Senior Climate Scientist, Director of Climate Science

Imagine a world where lives and property are saved despite a torrential flood arising from a category 1 Hurricane disgorging the immense load of water it picked up over the warming tropical ocean.

Aftermath of Hurricane Irene Wilmington Vermont Flood August 28, 2011

Flood pictures after Hurricane Irene passed over Wilmington Vermont August 28, 2011. Images courtesy of the Fire Mutual Aid Southwestern New Hampshire District who sent rescue team to Vermont.

The remnant hurricane unburdens its extremely heavy water load inland from the coast, rapidly swelling streams and rivers far above historic 100 year flood levels. Yet the local communities did not have to evacuate because their leaders of a decade before started a prudent 20 year investment strategy to provide designed release points up river to divert to holding basins, groundwater injection wells, and other points where water could temporarily be stored for later use. Meanwhile other incentives had worked for private and commercial building upgrades or relocation to minimize the growing flood risk. Local businesses prepared for the season by analyzing past goods and services bought during disasters and had planned to resupply local and regional distribution centers delivering disaster-related goods to the stores before a road washes out and disrupts truck deliveries.

Imagine the questions raised by this community before they embarked upon investments that protected them from this flood. How many river release points do we need to protect against likely extreme events of the future?  How high could the river be in the next 20 years or 50 years?  Are the costs of responding to the flood and potential loss of life much higher than making these investments in flood protection?  A power utility might grapple with the high cost of putting power lines underground, given the size of the community, compared to repairing the lines after a storm.  Of course that decision may be divorced from those costs born primarily by the businesses forced to put up the “closed” sign and families who toss out their spoiled seasonal store of food in their freezer.

National Climate Assessment working to improve planning decisions

Scientists, business leaders, water resource managers, economists, public health experts, to name a few, are gathering together for the critical task of assessing the most up to date state of knowledge on how to begin answering such questions. What is the most likely range of estimates for the river crest height in 50 years during the most extreme precipitation event of the year?  What local investments make sense to help communities prepare to withstand the most intense weather events of a season?  Experts are submitting their intent to supply the latest studies, data, and information by October 1, 2011 to meet the US Global Change Research Program deadline for the next National Climate Assessment. A 1990 Act requires the US Global Change Research Program to periodically report to the President and the Congress about climate change science and impacts in the US.

So Mayors, Governors, CEOs, and Citizens Take Note – this does not just mean scientists are expected to submit information.  The information needs by local communities or businesses are perhaps the most critical part of the mix.  For example if cow milk productivity rapidly drops off at a particular heat threshold, perhaps the next National Climate Assessment could provide contour maps with that threshold in addition to the typical divisions such as days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit or days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Being fully prepared to meet the challenges of and minimizing the risks from extreme weather requires the most up-to-date, relevant climate information possible.

What information would you like to see in the next US National Climate Assessment?