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50 Cities With Biggest Increases in Heavy Downpours

Climate

The unprecedented rains and the resulting flooding in Texas and Oklahoma have captured headlines in recent days. Seven locations in those states had the most rain ever reported—including Oklahoma City which had its wettest month ever with almost five times the amount of rain it normally sees in May. And both states logged the wettest month on record.

Scientists think heavy downpours across the U.S. could be linked to climate change.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

It might be easy to pass these downpours off as rare and exceptional events that get coverage because they make great TV. But the number of such heavy deluges has increased across the country, resulting in heavy damage to infrastructure, business and school closures, property loss and even fatalities, such as the more than two dozen deaths reported so far in Texas. And scientists are seeing a link to climate change.

"While rainfall in the region is consistent with the emerging El Niño, the unprecedented amounts suggest a possible climate change signal, where a warming atmosphere becomes more saturated with water vapor and capable of previously unimagined downpours," said Climate Central, an organization of scientists and journalists which studies and provides information on climate change.

Looking at 65 years of rainfall data, Climate Central found that 40 of the 48 mainland states had an increase in the number of heavy downpours since 1950. The biggest increases were in the northeast with a 31 percent increase and the midwest with a 16 percent increase. Rhode Island had a 104 percent increase in heavy rainfall, followed by Maine with 61 percent, Wyoming with 58 percent, New Hampshire with 56 percent and Connecticut with 43 percent. Missouri, Vermont, Alabama, New York and Iowa all had increases in excess of 25 percent.

Check out this interactive map that shows the downpour trend in the U.S.:

Sixteen cities have seen rainfall increases of more than 100 percent, with McAllen, Texas far in the lead at 700 percent. Portland, Maine had a 400 percent increase, with Philadelphia, New York and Louisville all having increases of more than 300 percent.

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Climate Central cited heavy rainfalls in Nashville and Detroit as examples of the impact of such rains. In Nashville in 2010, 13.6 inches of rain in a mere two days killed 11 people and caused $2 billion in damages. An August 2014 downpour in Detroit killed two and caused $1.1 billion in damages. The group also pointed to the potential health risks of such rainfall. It found that approximately half of the waterborne disease outbreaks in the U.S. from 1948 through 1994 were linked to periods of heavy rain.

 

The Texas rainfall has alleviated the drought the state suffered from last year, when half of it was under severe, extreme or exceptional drought. Now none is, and only a small fraction of the state is reporting even moderate drought. But that's probably little consolation to the residents of the 37 Texas counties in which Gov. Greg Abbott has declared disaster areas, saying "You cannot candy coat it. It’s absolutely massive."

Both Texas Senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, are climate deniers who would vigorously dispute what Climate Central has to say, despite the fact that Texas suffers from a greater number of costly weather-related disasters than any state, including drought, heat and wildfires.

"Extreme heavy downpours are consistent with what climate scientists expect in a warming world," Climate Central explained. "With hotter temperatures, more water evaporates off the oceans, and the atmosphere can hold more moisture. Research shows that the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has already increased. That means that  there is often a lot more water available to come down as rain. Climate scientists have already shown that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations as a consequence of human activity are partially responsible for the average global increase in heavy precipitation."

Measuring and dealing with such downpours is made difficult by the fact that, compared to extreme temperatures, they tend to be localized rather than regional events and random in nature, making it hard to tell where they will occur. But according to Climate Central, scientists think the increase in heavy downpours will continue throughout the 21st century.

"Climate models predict that if carbon emissions continue to increase as they have in recent decades, the types of downpours that used to happen once every 20 years could occur every 4 to 15 years by 2100," said Climate Central. "As the number of days with extreme precipitation increases, the risk for intense and damaging floods is also expected to increase throughout much of the country."

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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