Climate Change – Manifesting in Front of Us?


Speaking of ethics, there has been a lot of discussion about climate changes and the cause (or in some sectors is it real).  It seems to me that the political concern about acknowledging climate change has more to do with the continued use of fossil fuels and coal as much as anything else.  But those who have been around a while can see changes in our lifetime, and opposed to geologic timescales, and that should be a concern. And especially civil engineers need to think about climate changes when designing infrastructure.  And I am not thinking so much about Florida, sea level rise or hurricane intensity.

For example, the recent fires in California remind us that extended drought conditions will exacerbate the potential for forest fires.  With people moving to forested areas, the potential for property damage and life safety issues increase. Forest fires are a fact of life in forests – my grandmother lost her cabin in the woods in 1990 in a forest fire.  However, the real concern is the size of fires is increasing as drought conditions repeat and extend and that they appear to create their own weather patterns that inhibit fire fighting.  One of the first things climate experts have told us we will notice is higher temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns.  The fires appear to be climate impacts manifesting in front of us.

When I was growing up, we nearly always had snow for Christmas in northeast Ohio.  That seems to have stopped after 1980.  Now it seems like temperatures are mostly in the 50s for Christmas.  But I have noted that snowfall seems to increase in the February/March timeframe in the Midwest when as a kid March was often the start of spring.  A shift in weather patterns?  The climate is changing in our lifetimes.  That is way faster than it probably should and suggests something is at work that should concern us.

Heat created closures for fishing in the streams of the upper Colorado River (Grand County).  The rivers warmed up and higher temperatures imperil native trout in the river.  Fishing stresses the fish and the higher temperatures were not permitting the stressed, caught fish to recover, and they died.  Temperature also reduces dissolved oxygen levels that worsens the potential for fish to survive.  The temperature issue is exacerbated by drier than normal conditions that reduced streamflow.  This is the second time (2012 was the last) for this to occur.  Again, are we seeing climate change manifest itself in front of us?

Ultimately climate issues should be an ongoing consideration for water managers.  Less water, less snow and lessening glaciers means less water for water supply.  Less water also often leads to higher water temperatures – a water quality concern.  Bacteria rise as do algae in warmed water, confounding water treatment and increasing the potential for taste, odor and biological concerns.  Unfortunately, many utilities do not have plans to address climate impacts.  Sure Portland, Seattle, Denver,  some California utilities and some south Florida utilities might, but there is a large number of smaller utilities in at risk areas that do not have plans in place or have not included potential future water supply challenges in their plans.  Maybe it is time to rethink that.

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