In weather forecasting, the past is often a harbinger of the future. In a rapidly urbanizing world facing climate change, however, the future looks less and less like the past. With a theme of Building, Sustaining, and Improving our Weather and Climate Hazard Resilience, we’re facing this problem head on at the AMS Annual Meeting, nowhere more so than in tonight’s Presidential Town Hall Meeting (7:00–8:30 p.m., Room C111 of the Georgia World Congress Center).
The speakers include FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and an IPCC coordinating lead author, Donald Wuebbles—two key figures in communicating climate change hazards and adaptation. Helping all to visualize extremes in the weather will be NCAR’s Mel Shapiro—a master at telling a tale through stunning imagery. This time his tale is Superstorm Sandy, which crashed ashore in the Northeast in fall 2012 with deadly fury. Sandy exposed just how vulnerable our nation is to natural disasters. Storm surge flooding didn’t just wreck the beaches, our playgrounds at the shore. Seawater rushed inland, flooding airports and mass transportation routes and partially disconnecting the biggest city in America—and financial heart of the nation—from its neighbors. The price tag was enormous.
You’ll hear a lot at the Town Hall about how weather- and climate-driven disasters in America are costing us more and more. Multibillion-dollar weather disasters, once consisting solely of major hurricanes and extended drought, are becoming common—even from small-scale thunderstorms. With a climate that’s heating up–resulting in an increase in extreme weather, as Wuebbles will discuss–so too will we see an increase is such megadisasters.
Wuebbles’ playbook on Monday will be the fifth assessment report (AR5) of climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Wuebbles was coordinating lead author of the Working Group 1 section, which was released in full form last week. He says he plans to overview its findings with “an emphasis on our state of understanding of severe weather events under a changing climate.” The presentation will include a preview of the U.S. National Climate Assessment to be released in April.
Wuebbles, who is an atmospheric science professor at the University of Illinois, will also report from a series of NOAA workshops evaluating attribution science (in BAMS here, here, and here), which currently supports making useful projections on some but not all types of severe-weather events. Projections of heat waves and cold spells as well as heavy precipitation events are now possible, and “meaningful trends in floods and droughts” are also discernible by region in the United States. Confidence in an increase in hurricane intensity as the climate warms is also growing. But forecasts of how climate change will affect severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, which in recent years have broken into the billion-dollar disaster range, remain out of reach for now, Wuebbles says, but he adds, “By the next assessment we may be able to make stronger statements.”
Even without the financial burden, today’s weather disasters are becoming debilitating. Look no further than last week’s shutdown of Atlanta due to a well-forecast snowfall. It shouldn’t have happened—particularly since the city went through the same thing just three years ago (January 2011), only with a slightly heavier snowfall. No one thought it could happen again, but it did.
Our ability to successfully communicate is challenged most when disaster strikes. That’s where Fugate comes in. As the top emergency manager in the nation, his job is to organize meaningful and rapid response, which relies on successful communication.
The key is to organize lines of communication beforehand, so when the weather becomes extreme, the avenues of information will remain open. But there are other forms of disaster response. Fugate sees resilience to disaster through increasing adaptation as the way forward in a changing climate. By reducing the risk, he believes we can manage to recover more quickly from extreme weather events. Most importantly, in his view, is to turn victims of disaster into what he prefers them to be called: survivors. He encourages neighbors and communities to get better at coming together when disaster occurs and to help each other overcome the odds and survive.
As AMS Associate Executive Director Bill Hooke explains in Sunday’s Living on the Real World column, there are many levels of disaster response, and all of them “need to be mastered.” When disaster strikes a community, its residents probably will look to the top command-and-control such as FEMA to make things right. But at the other end of disaster response is personal responsibility. Each of us has the task before us to take action to improve our situation. We can wait for disaster to strike, but better would be to plan now how to adapt and make ourselves resilient to weather and climate hazards so they won’t turn into catastrophes.