The Christian Science Monitor reported last week: “Atlanta flood: After drought, residents caught by surprise.”  This is precisely the sort of headline that climate scientists have been warning us about when they talk about altered precipitation patterns as a result of global climate disruption.  The 20 inches of rain that fell in a day and a half and deluged a wide swathe of the greater Atlanta area has, so far, taken 10 lives and inflicted an estimated $250 million in damages. It followed a two-year drought that severely threatened local water supplies.  Citing “great hydrologic and climate uncertainty,” one expert quoted by CSM puts forth a new climate wisdom that has as yet to catch on widely:  “We can’t necessarily count on what we saw in the past as the judgment of where storms are going to be in the future.” 

post by Anne Polansky

Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor writesAtlanta flood: After drought, residents caught by surprise:  The lesson from the Atlanta flood is that many Americans are unprepared for disaster.

The article continues:

Failure to anticipate:

The number of uninsured victims, experts say, shows that even after a decade of major disasters, understanding and communicating risk remains a weak spot in America’s preparedness.

Thirty percent of Americans who get hit by floodwaters live outside established 100-year flood zones, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

People who live in a 100-year flood plain have a 26% chance of flooding during a 30 year period, or, more technically, a 1% chance of experiencing 100-year flood levels being equaled or exceeded in any single year (the risk curve isn’t completely linear).  A 500-year flood has a 0.2% chance of occurring in any single year. 

Noting that nearly a third of US residents live outside 100-year flood zones (where flood insurance is currently optional), the CSM notes that “understanding and communicating risk remains a weak spot in America’s preparedness.” 

Gerald Galloway, an adviser in the Obama White House and a University of Maryland engineering professor and expert on flood insurance, puts it this way:

“We’re living in a world of great hydrologic and climate uncertainty. So the lesson here is that we can’t necessarily count on what we saw in the past as the judgment of where storms are going to be in the future.” (emphasis added)

This is precisely the point Climate Science Watch has been underscoring—not just about droughts and floods, but about the panoply of likely climate change impacts coming down the pike. 

While seemingly incongruous, scientists are predicting both more droughts and flooding for the southeastern United States, noting that the region has already experienced changes in the frequency, distribution, and intensity of precipitation, a trend that is expected to continue.  The June 2009 report by a U.S. Global Change Research Program panel, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, has this to say about the part of the country Atlanta occupies:

(Also see our previous post, Climate change in our backyards:  the Southeast)

•  “Average autumn precipitation has increased by 30 percent for the region since 1901; heavy downpours have increased in many parts of the region, and the percentage of the region experiencing moderate to severe drought has risen over the past three decades.”

•  Since the 1970s, “the area of moderate to severe spring and summer drought has increased by 12 percent and 14 percent, respectively.  Even in the fall months, when precipitation tended to increase in most of the region, the extent of drought increased by 9 percent.”

•  Climate models indicate that Gulf Coast states will tend to have less rainfall in winter and spring in relation to the more northern states in the region, and that droughts are likely to continue to increase in frequency, intensity, and duration.

•  “Decreased water availability due to increased temperature and longer periods of time between rainfall events, coupled with an increase in societal demand is very likely to affect many sectors of the Southeast’s economy.”

How many floods and droughts will it take to wake people up to the very real and immediate threats and risks associated with global climate disruption? 

President Obama should speak out about this growing problem at home, as he does to international audiences such as the UN and the G-8.

And it is time for the United States to develop and implement a national climate change preparedness and impacts adaptation strategy.

See our related posts:

CSW recommendations for Senate climate bill on preparedness, research, & climate services

Obama talks about climate impacts and adaptation at G-8—now should take the message to U.S. public

CSW director Rick Piltz interview on UN Climate Summit: “We’re very far from where we need to be”

Pres. Obama at UN Climate Summit talks the right talk… but will the US walk the right walk?