What About Climate Change?

There may be few topics that raise more discussion in the US than climate change. Whether arguing it is catastrophic to the other end of the spectrum that is it all nonsense, the discourse masks the real question:  Is there a concern for the utility industry?  Interesting the answer seems to depend on where you are.  The focus here is to discuss why and where it matters, and why for many of us, it may not.


The scientific literature provides strong evidence that global climate change is affecting the world’s water resources (Karl et al, 2009; UNEP, 2009; IPCC, 2007), including ocean acidification, global temperature rise (Figure 1), receding ice caps, melting glaciers, changing precipitation patterns, and sea level rise (IARU, 2009; Karl et al, 2009; USEPA, 2008; IPCC, 2007). These effects may result in more severe drought or flooding, varying stream flow patterns, rising sea levels along the coasts, and contamination of freshwater aquifers and coastal water bodies as a result (IPCC, 2007).  Eleven of the 12 years between 1995 and 2006 rank among the warmest years in the instrumental record of global temperature data (i.e., since 1850) (IPCC, 2007). The global average sea level has risen at 3.1 ± 0.70 mm/year since 1993 (Cazenave, 2008), which is more than the 2.1 mm/yr for most of the 20th century. The rise in atmospheric and water temperatures may result in greater uncertainty in the amount, intensity and timing of precipitation. Much of the precipitation effect across the United States will likely be manifested by changes in the magnitude of rainfall during existing seasons, such that most regions will likely see wetter wet seasons and drier dry seasons (P. Gleick, 2008; Tebaldi et al, 2006; Groisman et al, 2005).


The reality is that if you have lived for 40 or more years, your perception that the summers seem less severe and the summers hotter, is a correct reality.  And most people perceive this.  So how does this affect utilities and should everyone be concerned?  Well it depends…..


The first utilities focusing on climate impacts on waters supplies were in the Pacific northwest.  Why?  Because many of these utilities rely on glaciers to store water for raw water supplies.  For years the glaciers have melted slowly after the winter, providing water supplies consistently throughout the summer months, only to be regenerated in the winter again.  But many of these utilities noted that the glaciers were getting smaller and projecting ahead, there might not be any glaciers in 50-100 years.  That’s like having your reservoir go dry and no precipitation to refill it.  This is a problem, and given the location, significant planning efforts are required to address the problem.


Utilities in the Rocky Mountain states noted that winters were warmer and often less snowy.  The current beetle problem is indicative of the loss of the weather-related stressors that controlled the beetles (cold and wet).  The mountains hold heavy snow for summer built environments, that are expanding rapidly.  Less snow to fill reservoirs is a similar concern to loss of glacial material.  Summer of dry right now in Colorado.


Along the eastern seaboard, planners have noted that sea level has risen 9 inches since the 1929 vertical datum survey.  The sea level rise appears to have accelerated recently.  Ocean temperatures area reported by NOAA to be higher, which means that sea level rise may be driven by thermal expansion f the ocean (basic heat equation form chemistry), and glacial melt is reported to be a contributing factor.  Sea level rise is troubling for coastal communities and may threaten local water supplies.


In southeast Florida, the geography is different – the land actually slopes downward as you go inland.  50+% of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, over 4 million people, live on land below 5 feet above the 1929 sea level.  The South Florida Water Management District reports that they have lost 15% of the drainage capacity of the canal system already and could lose 70% with another 9 inches of sea level rise.  Huge problem is you live at elevation 3.  Moving is an obvious, but unrealistic solution.  I mentioned over 4 million people.  How about over $3 trillion in property and $300 billion/yr in economic activity?  That would be a catastrophic disruption for the state.  Hence sea level rise is an action item for the area, but gains no traction state-wide.


In each of these areas, the focus has been strategies that utilities and planners should pursue for adaptation to se level rise.  Heimlich et al (2009) suggested a milestone approach – when you hit a certain milestone in the climate change scenario, you should have completed certain armoring activities and be poised for another set.  That relives local officials of the problem of not planning ahead, while preventing the premature expenditure of funds.  The key is adaptation solutions to protect the current conditions.  And most of the infrastructure needed is local, so expect local funding to be the impetus for local armoring, not federal or state funds.


But why isn’t everyone concerned and is this purely a political issue – “red” vs “blue” states?  In a recent paper I published (Bloetscher, 2012) I noted that much of the state of Florida is unconcerned with the issue, and while very much a “red” area, the issue may not be completely politically motivated.  The same is true of much of the heartland of the US.  Their impacts may be less rainfall that today, but given limited rainfall now, how much difference will that make?  It may be that in these areas, the heat, and power demands created by higher summer temperatures may be a far more critical factors, and one that only tangentially impacts the water industry as a result of competition for cooling water.


So is there a concern for the utility industry with respect to climate variation or change?  The answer is it depends on where you are, and where is matters, efforts should be ongoing to deal with the long term problem.  For the rest, maybe not so much.  Where we really may see a problem is with power demands and water, another subject for another day.


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