Extreme Weather: Expect More of It

Laura Kiesel
Spare Change News

On July 17th, the town of Arlington was besieged by a series of intense thunderstorms.

That day, I was alone in my apartment in East Arlington when suddenly the wind picked up outside and began blowing hard through my cracked living room windows. A wall of water blasted against the windows with such strength that in mere seconds my floor and couch were drenched. I heard the sound of shattering glass in the bedroom and ran in to find that one of my windows had been blown out by the force of the wind. Then, it was over.

Though I thought it was a tornado passing through, it was something else entirely. Turns out, East Arlington had experienced a “microburst.”

A microburst, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), describes the phenomenon that results from periods of high humidity and heavy thunderstorms: storm winds are pushed down from above and shear across the ground at breakneck speeds. They often occur in a concentrated area of 2.5 miles or less for a period of five to 15 minutes. Wind speeds can reach upwards of 100 miles per hour, causing massive damage.

In addition to the damage it did to my bedroom window, this particular microburst was responsible for damaging or destroying approximately 90 trees in Arlington, as well as taking down multiple traffic signals, street lamps, fences and power lines–leaving 200 people without power for the night. The total cost of the damage done to the town has been estimated to be between $325,000 and $350,000.

“We’re still working with state officials to determine if state funds will be made available to defray the cost of the damages,” says Adam W. Chapdelaine, Arlington’s Town Manager.

It turns out that this is actually Arlington’s second microburst in the past couple of years; the last one took place in early June 2010.

Coincidentally, the same week of this most recent microburst, the Boston-based conservation group Environment America released a report that revealed that extreme weather events have increased substantially in the New England region. Based on analysis of 80 million daily precipitation records from the contiguous U.S., the report revealed that storms with significant amounts of precipitation had increased by 85 percent in New England since 1948, while the rest of the nation had seen only a 30 percent increase.

“As the old saying goes, when it rains, it pours – especially in recent years as bigger storms have hit us more often,” said Nathan Willcox, Federal Global Warming Program Director with Environment America in a press release.

The East Arlington microburst that hit earlier this summer is only one of a series of unusual weather events to appear in the New England (and especially, Massachusetts) area in recent years.

Amidst last year’s largest ever outbreak of tornadoes throughout country—a staggering 1,200 touching down in the U.S., according to NOAA– New England experienced a huge tornado outbreak, in which seven reported tornadoes swept through the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts. The city of Springfield was hit the hardest; an estimated 300 were injured and 500 left homeless. Hurricane Irene also blew into New England last year just grazing Massachusetts, but hitting Vermont particularly hard.

The connection between extreme weather events and global warming has always been controversial in the scientific community. Recently, however, more and more scientists have gone on record to suggest the likelihood of a causal link between the two.

“Extreme [weather] events are by definition rare, so it is hard to get enough statistics to prove trends with some of them,” explains climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel, Assistant Director of Climate Research and Analysis for the Climate and Energy Program of the non-profit, the Union of Concerned Scientists.

According to Ekwurzel, there is very strong evidence that extreme heat, intense precipitation, and severe droughts are connected to climate change. Conversely, there is less evidence connecting more singular events like tornadoes and hurricanes to climate change.

“Of course it is important to share what the science is most clear about since that confidence can help in planning for building more climate-resilient communities,” adds Ekwurzel.

Since tornadoes and hurricanes are often the result of extended periods of hot, humid weather and intense rainstorms, many of those in the conservation community claim that these unusual weather events are at least partially a byproduct of global warming. It therefore is important to become better prepared for such weather events as the warming world makes them more common.

Fortunately, the Massachusetts Legislature recently passed a bill that would hold public utility companies accountable for emergency response services and notifications during power outages due to storm events. The bill also requires utility companies to establish well-staffed call centers during major storms and to coordinate with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). It is currently awaiting Governor Deval Patrick’s signature.

Meanwhile, here in Arlington, the Arlington Tree Committee is currently seeking donations to replace many of the trees that were taken out by the microburst, and Town officials are continuing to work with state and federal officials on the recovery effort.

“We’re going to use our response to this storm to inform our future planning for [storm] responses,” says Chapdelain.

Charlotte Milan, the co-chair of Sustainable Arlington, also hopes that this microburst will help move the topic of climate change and adaptation to the forefront of the Town’s agenda.

“There’s a master planning process getting underway in the Town beginning October, and climate change must be part of that conversation,” says Milan. “Sustainable Arlington looks forward to collaborating with other groups concerned about the environment and our local economy to add focus on climate adaptation strategies.”

LAURA KIESEL is a freelance writer.

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