Storms and “Killer Heat” loom, challenging globe

Storm

Severe storms, temperature extremes and polluted air are all expected to get worse because of global climate change. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Schaer’s Country Market’s self-pick strawberries didn’t open its fields this summer.

Too cold. Too wet. Planting was late.

Bath’s 14th Annual Redneck Fishing Tournament was canceled.

Too cold, too wet, too long. Even for people who think stalking slimy Asian carp is fun, the mess left by weeks of flooding was too much.

Steamboat Days’ usual rides along the Peoria riverfront were moved to Pekin. Same reasons.

Add it up. Last winter was one of the coldest on record for Chicago. The first six months of the year were the wettest on record for Illinois. July was the hottest month ever recorded for Planet Earth. Average all that and perhaps you could call 2019 a perfectly average weather year.

Going forward, it might be.

Jim Angel

Jim Angel

“Those things are all interconnected,” said Jim Angel, state climatologist emeritus and a member of The Nature Conservancy’s Science Advisory Committee. “It leads to a very active weather pattern.”

Indeed. Now we’re heading into autumn watching televised coverage of the cleanup from Hurricane Dorian. Fifty people were confirmed dead by mid-September, with hundreds more missing. In the previous century, there were 22 Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes like Dorian. In this 19-year-old century there have been 13, including five in the last four years. That’s not all hot air out of Washington, D.C.

What’s happening?

Exactly what Angel predicted to Community Word in 2018: More heat means more extreme weather more often.

“This is the classic example of what we talked about last year: Overall wetter conditions and more rain events,” Angel said.

He illustrated the practical result in Illinois this spring. Wet weather and lingering cold meant just 73 percent of corn and 49 percent of soybeans were planted by June 9. The switch from flood to drought and cold to hot — 56 sites broke daily records for heat on June 28 and 29 — baked a crust on soggy fields. Already late seedlings had trouble breaking through.

“The root development wasn’t there yet,” Angel said.

On the day this was written, Sept. 12, it was 90 degrees outside. The humidity was 55 percent. That means the heat index, a combination of the two, was 97 degrees. It wasn’t the worst day of the year — that would be one of the windy sub-zero days last winter — but it was fairly miserable. And it was the day the Union of Concerned Scientists and several other groups met in Normal to discuss “Killer Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days.”

On a day like Sept. 12, outdoor workers may face heat-related problems. A few more degrees and/or a little more humidity can put children, the elderly and those with health conditions at risk. With a heat index over 105 degrees, just about anyone can be affected. The point of the group discussion, and the report, is that weather is changing to a point where that could happen a lot. (For the full report see, https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2019/07/killer-heat-analysis-full-report.pdf.)

“Not only is this extreme heat more frequent and severe now than it was a few decades ago, but it’s on track to get a whole lot worse,” said Meghan Hassett, UCS Midwest Outreach Coordinator.

She said the effects may be exacerbated in Peoria because extreme heat creates bad air quality days. Peoria already faces high levels of air pollution which can be risky to children and those with preexisting respiratory illnesses.

“For Peoria County, historically the area has experienced an average of two days per year with a heat index above 105°F,” Hassett said. “If we fail to reduce heat-trapping emissions, by late century Peoria County would experience an average of 44 days per year with a heat index above 105°F. That includes ‘nine off the charts’ days, which are so extreme that the National Weather Service doesn’t have a way to accurately calculate how they feel for a human body.”

If you’re not going to live another 80 years, don’t think you’re off the hook. You can look at local data by county or by congressional district. Illinois’ 18th can expect heat indexes over 100 degrees Fahrenheit to increase from about eight days a year to 42 days a year by 2050 — with 26 of those days over 105 degrees.

What can I do?

It’s probably not a coincidence those Killer Heat charts can be broken into Congressional districts. You can opt for political action, as Hassett advocates.

“These local climate and health impacts for Peoria underscore the urgent need to pass renewable energy solutions like the Clean Energy Jobs Act that prioritize people and communities most impacted,” she said via email.

In the meantime, there are also personal, practical steps to take.

In August, climate researchers suggested people eat more vegetables and less meat. Some studies have shown farming and other land uses result in a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with cattle producing a good chunk of methane emissions.

Angel suggested property owners look at their storm drainage system. Consider berms and plants to hold the water or rain gardens in low spots. It might not seem like much, but it’s a start.

“If a lot of people do it, it’s really helpful,” Angel said.
Check your insurance. With more extreme storms, you may need it, and you may need it for things you haven’t considered in the past, like flooding. Federal flood insurance is not well-funded. Don’t count on it.

“You can get flooded pretty much anywhere if there’s enough water,” Angel said.

Be conscious of energy use. As Angel notes, that’s what drives greenhouse gases. Something as simple as weather stripping or cleaning the coils on your refrigerator can save energy, and money. (Try AmerenIllinois at https://amerenillinoissavings.com.)

“I just finished beefing up the insulation in my attic,” Angel said.

Terry Bibo



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