By Dr. Kandis Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
Recent weather has not disappointed the lower 48 states in the U.S. At the time of this writing, there have been several hurricanes and extreme heat across two-thirds of the country. In addition, there were floods in the eastern U.S., extreme drought in western states and wildfires that are causing multi-state air quality concerns.
As a former operational meteorologist, forecasting the weather is a passion of mine. An accurate forecast can save lives and property. Also, a timely forecast can enable decision makers to make informed decisions to protect homes and crops and to support displaced people. Climate changes – especially the type of changes that cause major weather events – are therefore a concern.
IPCC Report Notes the Severity of Climate Changes
The question is ‘whether the weather’ (pun intended) is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend of shifting long-term climate patterns. According to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, climate conditions are worsening, but humans can slow the deterioration and damage. The IPCC report highlights five main points:
State of the Climate Report Reveals Significant Environmental Changes
The American Meteorological Society’s recent State of the Climate Report echoes these sentiments. According to the State of the Climate Report, here are changes that are occurring right now:
- All major greenhouse gases, including CO2, reached new record high concentrations for the year.
- Annual temperatures were above the 1981–2010 average for the United States, Canada and Mexico.
- Harmful algal blooms developed along the U.S. West Coast, and coral reefs near Hawaii started to bleach under the heat stress.
- Off the coast of Oregon, warmer waters brought albacore tuna closer to shore, making them more accessible to recreational anglers, leading to record-breaking landings in September.
- Overall, nearly all of the global oceans experienced a marine heat wave in 2020.
- Major heat waves occurred in the northeast Pacific. The United States reported its fifth warmest month on record, which included several heat waves.
- The United States was dominated by warm, dry air in the West and an active storm track that brought wet conditions to much of the East.
- Drought covered nearly half of the contiguous United States by the end of the year, with more than 22% of the country experiencing extreme and exceptional drought—the two worst categories.
What can we gleam from these statistics? Weather is inevitable, but the extreme weather of 30 years ago is becoming more commonplace. Today’s extreme weather is also becoming more impactful. There is a need to mitigate the effects of extreme weather to protect the environment from many challenges, including the depletion of fish in oceans, depletion of field-grown food supplies, more wildfires and more violent storms.
The Water Supply in the West Is Shrinking
So how does the changing climate affect the supply of water, especially in the western U.S.? CQ Researcher’s Rachel Kaufman notes, “About two-thirds of the West now suffers from drought conditions, and water experts say the situation will worsen because of global warming and pressure on water supplies from population growth.”
For many rivers that have dams, there’s the risk that the dams will not have enough water to operate. The addition of wide-head turbines allows the dam to operate more efficiently at lower water levels; however, the water will recede almost to a point called “deadpool,” when there won’t be enough water for the dam to function.
US Water Quality Is Also Suffering
Water quality within the U.S. is also suffering. According to Water Benefits Health writer Merlin Hearn, there are current problems involving our water supply. Hearn provides these disturbing statistics:
- Over two-thirds of U.S. estuaries and bays are severely degraded because of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
- Water quality reports indicate that 45% of U.S. streams, 47% of lakes and 32% of bays are polluted.
- About 40% of America’s rivers are too polluted for fishing, swimming or aquatic life. The lakes are even worse – over 46% are too polluted for fishing, swimming, or aquatic life.
- Every year, almost 25% of U.S. beaches are closed at least once because of water pollution.
- Americans use over 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides every year, which eventually washes into our rivers and lakes.
- Over 73 different kinds of pesticides have been found in U.S. groundwater that eventually ends up in our drinking water unless it is adequately filtered.
- The Mississippi River, which drains over 40% of the continental U.S., carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. This resulting pollution is the cause of a coastal dead zone the size of Massachusetts every summer.
- Septic systems are failing all around the country, causing untreated waste materials to flow freely into streams, rivers, and lakes.
- Over 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, groundwater and industrial waste are discharged into U.S. waters annually.
- The five-minute daily shower most Americans take uses more water than a typical person in a developing country uses in a whole day.
Solving Environmental Problems Requires a Three-Tiered Approach
A three-tiered approach is needed to address our environmental issues, including a polluted, depleted supply of water. First, a strong, trained workforce is needed. We need to create a pipeline of future researchers, policymakers, and sustainability experts to discuss water, weather, and climate issues.
Second, public engagement is key. Weather statistics mean nothing if the public does not understand them. It’s imperative to relay information in an easy-to-understand manner to enable decision makers to make the best decisions.
Third, we need to attract global investors and partners to combat our environmental issues. Let’s face it – there is strength in numbers. Having a global-based mitigation strategy will help our society to develop international policies and regulations to help citizens in multiple countries and use a smart business-model approach to science-based mitigation policies.