I attended a recent forum in Albany, Facing the Storm: Preparing for Increased Extreme Weather in Upstate New York, and wanted to pass along some of what I heard, or thought I heard. The event was sponsored by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.
For a forum concerning the impacts of a changing climate the audience was unusually diverse in terms of backgrounds and professions. As a staff member for Adirondack Wild, I was sitting next to a firefighter from a village in Montgomery County. At the next table were other firefighters and emergency personnel in uniform. Across from me were several members of the League of Women Voters. Initially we all wondered if we were in the right meeting. I think by the end we realized what we all have in common.
Similarly, the speakers were diverse, ranging from Congressman Paul Tonko and University at Albany President Robert Jones, to atmospheric and climate scientists, hydrologists, emergency management coordinators from counties across upstate, small city mayors, and public policy wonks.
One of the emergency management coordinators who spoke, Colleen Fullford from Schoharie County, lost her 150 year old home and all her possessions to Hurricane Irene’s flood. She conveyed one of the most important messages of the day, and I paraphrase what she said: to do my job and prepare for the inevitable next flood, I need your information. You are the experts, although you are not aware of that yet. I need to know your historic information about flooding in your neighborhood, where your high water marks are located, what your stream and rain gauges are telling you, what your part of the floodplain can tell you about the next flood. I need to train you in what to look for, but then I depend upon residents in my county to observe and share information with me. Get out of your comfort zones in terms of who you think you are and what you think you know. Get comfortable with the fact that in your home areas you are the observant experts who can best prepare me and your neighbors for the next extreme weather event.
Other Hurricane Irene lessons learned by Schoharie’s Colleen Fullford: we need redundant systems to account for inevitable failure of at least one important system; we need computer models of rainfall integrated with stream gauge data; we need real time weather data; but most of all we need a change in current mind-set that the next level of government will save us from the next storm. It won’t. Instead, we need to stretch our own community’s levels of awareness and capacity to prepare.
City of Oneida Mayor Max Smith recounted the continuing impacts of severe flooding in his city in 2013. He credited the numerous emergency responders, agencies and nonprofits which have helped his city in the many stages of recovery. He emphasized that partnerships are the only way communities like his can respond and recover from major flood events. That recovery is far from over, but then he said: The best thing to come out of this flood was that we built relationships in our city that never existed before, relationships between neighbors and neighborhoods which previously had not communicated. “Our community actually improved as a result.” He concluded with this thought: “I am very concerned about the science I am hearing about today, very concerned about the frequency of heavy weather we can expect in the future.”
Dr. Christopher Thorncroft, atmospheric and environmental scientist at the University at Albany, presented an excellent summary of what is known today. On an 800,000 year time scale, global atmospheric carbon concentration hovered right around 200 parts per million. In just 70 years, global concentrations (from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii) have broken through 400 ppm, heading towards 550. Global climate modeling has captured the actual observed physics of human forcing of the climate very well. With warmer oceans and atmosphere comes higher atmospheric moisture. All this means greater frequency of severe weather events. The percentage change in heavy precipitation events experienced since 1958 is greatest in the Northeast (a startling 74% change). By contrast, the next largest percentage change, the Midwest, has experienced a 45% change in extreme precipitation events since 1958.
What is badly needed now, Thorncroft said, were more strategically located weather detection sites in the northeast. Dr. Thorncroft mentioned the Adirondacks as one area of NYS most in need of more detection sites. The Adirondacks as a whole remains a big blank spot in terms of weather detection.
Professor Thorncroft concluded his remarks for the afternoon by saying, and I paraphrase: scientists like me cannot hide in our academic towers. We must engage, we must educate about climate science, resulting impacts and mitigation as well as adaptation.
Then he and University President Jones announced some very good news: The Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences will soon be hiring at a scale to make NYS one of the globe’s best staffed centers of expertise in atmospheric and climate science. Secondly, the University and its collaborators have secured funding for 125 new and retooled weather stations across the state, including new ones that fill critical geographic gaps existing now in the Adirondacks. Every county will have at least one new or retooled weather station. These stations will take three years to develop, but will when they come on line provide real-time data about the atmosphere, precipitation, soil moisture and much more. During Hurricane Irene, critical data came in from the Adirondacks, but it came in a week after the event.
A hydrologist from the Northeast River Forecast Center (a part of the federal agency NOAA), David Vallee, whose own home town in Rhode Island was inundated by Hurricane Irene, noted that the challenge is not simply rapidly changing extreme weather, but continued acceleration in human development and urbanization in previously undisturbed small floodplains, which greatly amplify any flood event. He noted that his own town’s infrastructure, water, stormwater and sewage, were all designed for the storms of 1950-1961. Those conditions simply do not pertain today. This is also true for NYS. Our community infrastructure was all designed for the “100 year storm,” or the 1% chance every year of receiving 5-6 average inches of rainfall over 24 hour period, not the 8-10 average inches over 24 hours now being experienced on a regular basis. The northeast is the nation’s “hot spot” for record rainfall and flooding, he said. County flood maps are in urgent need of updating and while much progress has been made, the Adirondacks and western New York remain unfinished. Furthermore, we are a home rule state, meaning that building in a floodplain is often done in ignorance of actual flood elevations and receive far too many variances from local zoning boards of appeal. Local laws need to be updated to map not only the current base flood elevation, but the base elevation plus several feet of “freeboard” above that.
Livingston County Emergency Management Director Kevin Niedermaier reminded the forum that severe flood events are life changing, traumatic events and take a huge toll psychologically. In the educational work that must be done to prepare for more frequent flood events he said we must be aware of this human response even as we emphasize needed planning steps that address human health and safety. He aired the frustration of many emergency planners in countering the political pressures on local government leaders to grant variances to rebuild structures in the floodplain or in high hazard areas just outside of it. All of the reasons (and laws and disincentives) not to rebuild in these areas need constant, educational approach and attention, he said.
Congressman Paul Tonko was the keynote speaker. Tonko currently co-chairs the Congressional caucus of members committed to “Sustainable Energy and Environment” (SEEC). It is, he noted optimistically, the second largest caucus in the US Congress. He praised the many emergency responders and managers in the room for their actions following Hurricanes Irene and Lee. He similarly praised University at Albany and its president for leading in climate research and development and noted its significant presence in his district and in Washington, DC where, he said, I must remain the counterweight to crippling negativity in the US Congress on issues of climate and on investment in science research and critical infrastructure. He noted that US drinking water systems alone now require $380 billion in improvements and upgrades, while we feel lucky if the Congress approves 1-2% of that need annually. “How dare we drain our well dry,” he said regarding conservative opposition to funding critical infrastructure improvements, as well as weather satellites, streamgages, weather monitoring systems and more. He also stated that “we must also use the power of natural systems” to lessen the damage of flooding in his district.
Forum organizer Robert Bullock of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government promised that this forum would be repeated in future years, and then took a number of questions and comments from the audience, some which related to climate change, the urgency of recognizing and adapting to the “new normal” in terms of frequency of severe weather and, from one commenter, the importance of passing a carbon tax in the US Congress. She came as a local representative of the grassroots Citizens Climate Lobby. Professor Emeritus Carl George (Union College) noted that the forum had not examined the biology and behavior of riparian, or stream systems, including the role of sediment transport, and loss of biological activity and diversity which are one important casualty of severe storm events. Yours truly noted that one lesson from the Adirondacks post Hurricane Irene is that vulnerable towns must respect their floodplains, and not exacerbate the next flood through bulldozing, channelizing and armoring their stream banks. I noted the collaboration since 2011 of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Trout Unlimited, Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, Ausable River Association, Adirondack Wild and others in public education and in projects that restore and reconnect damaged stream systems to their floodplains. This was echoed by a participant from Schoharie County who offered to teach others in the room about collaborative efforts underway in stream system behavior, restoration and increasing resilience in the face of severe flooding.
Photos: Above, the Hudson River at high water from the Bridge of Hope in Hadley on Wednesday, April 16, 2014 (photo by Billy Trudsoe); and below, the East Branch Ausable showing impacts of Irene flooding in Keene.