The Debrief

Climate Change: How Can We Prepare for the Next Storm?

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Flash floods that inundate the region's roads. Rainfall totals from a single storm breaking records set just a few weeks ago. Wildfires out west. There's no question that climate change is here - and it's affecting us all.

This week on The Debrief, Storm Team 4's Janice Huff sits down with fellow meteorologists to discuss the affects of climate change, and what can be done on an individual level to make a difference.

The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and concision.

Janice Huff: David and Bernadtte, thanks for being with us. It's great to see you both. What has changed regarding climate change itself?

Bernadette Woods Placky: Well, a lot, really. I'm going to try and simplify this because this has been a building situation for a long time. As we put more greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, we forced the earth to warm.

That warming is translating into a whole bunch of different things, but it's also accumulating. So what we're seeing now is this buildup of decades of those extra greenhouse gases that are really just supercharging our atmosphere so that everything that's happening is kind of being pushed to some new levels.

And David, over the last few weeks, we've seen extreme flooding here. We've seen tornadoes -- which are not unusual in our area -- but these types of tornadoes with this type of damage, we do not see on a regular basis.

With Henri and Ida particular situation, we had remnants of storms and of hurricanes that came our way. And you know, a lot of people, when they think of a hurricane, they think of coastal impacts. They think of wind. When a system is a remnant or a tropical storm, they don't think very much about that because it's just a tropical storm. It's just a tropical depression. What do you have to say about the events over the last couple of weeks?

David A. Robinson: They've been remarkable. Add to that the fact that we had our sixth warmest August in 127 years in New Jersey and the fourth warmest summer.

That EF3 tornado in South Jersey was the strongest in New Jersey in 30 years, and only the fifth of that strength in the last 75 years and none have been stronger. And then we had rainfall intensities with Ida coming in that were in the 500 to 1000 year return period.

So, as Bernadtte said, we've supercharged everything and these events would have occurred without humans inhabiting the planet, but we braise the foundation. Everything that's happening is starting at a higher starting point, be it the temperature, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, the energy in the atmosphere.

We talk a lot about these storms in terms of one of the signals of climate change. We've talked about a lot of intense rainfall events, and we've seen that happen in numerous occasions, in other parts of the country, but now we're seeing it here.

I think the visions of the subways in New York City flooding with cascading waterfalls and flooding where we're seeing a numerous deaths in our area too, as a result. Like you said, that's something that we've actually been dealing with on any type of basis here in our area in particular. Explain to everybody 500-year and 1,000-year rainfall, because there's a misconception about what that means.

Robinson: It's really hard to wrap your head around that, but let's even go back to the hundred year event. It means that there's a 1 percent chance of it happening any year. So, there was a one in 100 chance of it happening this year- and it happened.

Does that mean we wait a hundred years for it to happen again? No, it's got a one in 100 chance next year. And if we start seeing these more frequently, all of a sudden the one in 100-year event is a one and 50-year event. Or when we look at Floyd and Irene and now Ida, these are the three largest floods in central New Jersey going back to colonial times. And they all happened in the last 20 plus years, all from tropical systems, which gets back to your point.

But how do we deal with these things? We talk about climate change and its impacts quite a bit. I know you both do quite a bit. And we do on our air, but people who are watching from home say, ‘okay, what do I do?’

Placky: You know, that's a loaded question because one person does matter, but we need a lot of one people added up.

And I think that's the best way really to break it down is your voice matters, and you can have a huge impact. I mean, look at Gretta Thunberg. What she has done is really catalyzed the entire movement. So one person does matter, but what we're really dealing with are the mix of personal changes, but systems changes too.

We're not going to fix this unless we really change our systems. Even with that, unfortunately very good forecast before Ida, we saw so many deaths, right? So, when we're constantly seeing an event push a new level, we don't know what that looks like.

We could even hear, "oh, three inches of rain an hour," but we don't conceptually know what that means when it comes down. And even if we were fully prepared and you can model some of those things, but our systems aren't many, our infrastructure wasn't ready. It was still coming down into the subways, even if everybody was out of them. So, there's a lot of layers to that conversation.

I'm going to break it down a little bit more. Do you know where our emissions come from? It's primarily transportation, with a very close second being energy. We already have so many ways of shifting from a carbon intensive transportation system and energy system to a non-carbon intensive.

And I say carbon because carbon dioxide is involved with that carbon and that's what's warming our atmosphere. If we could eliminate the extra emissions from transportation and our energy sector, we could take care of 60 to 70 percent of our emissions that we're putting into the atmosphere. And these are with technologies that are already in place and exist.

So that's one thing. Agriculture does play a role, it also can play a solution. Also, our buildings and just how we create things and move around in general, they all play into it. But the two biggest of the ones I want to focus on because personally, we can make those changes, but one person alone needs to add up to an entire system that changes.

And the reason I say that too, is because there's another layer to this conversation that's really complex for people to definitely grasp, I think, is that what we're putting into the atmosphere today stays in some form for hundreds to thousands of years. So even if we shut everything down today, we're still going to accumulate more warming, which is going to affect future storms. And they're going to keep getting worse, not leveling out where we are, unfortunately. So that's why you hear such urgency when people are in this space, talking about it about yes, personal changes and raising your voice is very critical, but then building that and multiplying that and doing it really fast. We also show that we do have an impact so we can make these changes.

And that's the thing that I want to leave people with is it feels so overwhelming because it is awful to see that many deaths in 2021 from a well-forecasted storm system. It just hurts everyone in this space. But we can make those changes for the future. We really do know the causes of these issues and we really can't change that.

it is multilayered and multifaceted and it can be overwhelming. It really can. David, Bernadette has mentioned Greta Thunberg. She says young people all over the world are well aware of that the people in power are failing us. Bernadette mentioned our infrastructure we saw that with the storms and how the infrastructure, particularly in New York city can not accommodate these big rain systems in a situation like this.

What has to happen for municipalities for governments? How do they start the change? What is the impact for the, for the people who live in these?

Robinson: I'm glad you brought that up. Bernadette was absolutely right talking about the mitigation side of things. The fact is we've gotten ourselves into this predicament, and we're not going to get out of it overnight.

So we're going to need to learn to adapt and become more resilient. And that involves, for instance, communication. With Ida, the forecast was good, not perfect. The observations were there from our network on the ground to the to the radar data. There was communication. You were out communicating this, Janice, and the weather service was putting out warnings and emergency statements, but it has to go then to the public. And they have to be able to accept this communication, whether it's on their phone or off TV or something, but then they have to know how to react, how to respond to that.

And that's where we fail. We have to explain, "yes it's a remnant of a tropical storm, but, there's going to be flash flooding." They'll say, "Oh, I've driven through that before."

So somehow we have to be able to communicate this was exceptional and just stay in place. I have a colleague who was at a restaurant and was stuck in the parking lot at a restaurant for six hours. And that was the smartest thing they did because they didn't drive off into the water. The big problem with this event, as opposed to say Floyd which had some flash flooding in 99 was that it was dark. People were driving around and they didn't know what they're driving into. They've driven on these roads before, and they've never encountered that much water and they got into trouble very quickly and it's just tragic.

Placky: And it was so widespread too. This was like well from west of Philly up to Connecticut, usually that's up in these sort of corridors where you can focus a little more and get emergency management there.

But this was everywhere, which I think was another really hard to handle thing for everyone involved in the entire chain, from the communications in the beginning, through to the emergency response.

With the communication aspect, with a weathercast every day when we break in or when we're just on a regular basis is communicating the information. Sometimes it is a struggle because we're trying to get the information out to as many people as we possibly can.

Well, now we have all kinds of ways of doing it. It's not just broadcast. We have a social media, we have the internet. But I don't know if people are not maybe focusing in and taking these types of things as seriously as they should, or that whole notion of "I've done this before. I've seen this before."

How do we make sure we reach as many people as we possibly can to help save them from these disasters?

Robinson: I can say we reached a lot, but some people didn't know how to respond. And that was the tough part of this one was just, shelter in place, unless you're in a basement, get to a higher floor unless you're in a valley and see water coming, get up onto a hillside.

It came on so fast. People that were trapped in water or perished because they were caught off guard. This was really an amazing event. And you mentioned the infrastructure, we designed things to handle certain levels, our drains, our downspouts, our retention basins.

But they're not designed to handle a 1,000-year storm, three inches of rain in one hour. So that's when the communication comes in that we're seeing a situation that our infrastructure can’t handle, therefore get out of harm's way.

Placky: Dave’s completely right. Communication is so key and all three of us are so involved in that and take that dearly to heart. I also think that there are other layers that the public was dealing with with this, unfortunately, and we can dissect, and there's going to be a lot of postmortems going on in all of our meteorological conferences, because we don't ever want this to happen again.

But flash flooding hasn't been the primary threat in New Jersey and the tri-state areas compared to some other threats.  People responded well to the tornado warnings, not the flash flood warnings. So that's one thing that we're going to have to think about how to educate the public on what can be done and help them understand what that means, especially since this is going to keep adding up.

The other thing too is, I mean, our changing media landscape, as you said, Janice, are getting it so many different ways. You can't just communicate the severity of what happened through an icon on it. There's more needed to that. And this is a challenge to all of us to think how we can build that out in the best ways.

The other thing too is honestly, I think the public has a level of fatigue of just catastrophe from the past couple of years building up. And so, it's easier to tune things out. I'm not saying that's excused and I'm not saying that's the reason, but when you add all of these together, I think it's why late summer we're having some okay weather, people were out and about getting ready for the school year. It's easier to tune some of these things out than others. And so that's a challenge to all of us on how we can do better, and it is a challenge to the public and how we can bring them in a new ways.

Great point, excellent point. So there's a lot happening in terms of a focus on climate and climate change and what the communities have been doing to help combat that and what we need to do hence forth and moving forward. People hear terms like net 0 2050, and they hear things like global warming to 1.5 degrees C break that down and just regular terms. What are we talking about to just the general public and why these terms are important?

Robinson: It's communication, but when you talk at 1.5, you're talking degrees Celsius, right? So that's a problem to begin with in the United States with our English system. And you hear 1.5 degrees. I don't care if it's Fahrenheit and Celsius, it sounds like a yawner.

That's nothing, but people don't understand when you multiply that over the entire planet, that's enormous. So somehow we have to tell stories better. Even politicians want to hear stories.

They don't want to just see we science nerds give us a graph and a lot of numbers. They want to hear stories because it brings it home. And there's stories that we'll be able to tell for Ida. I studied polar climates, there are stories we can talk about in polar regions and communities having to relocate their climate refugees because the sea ice is behaving differently along their coast.

So these are the kinds of stories that brings it home and personalizes it. And that's how I think we're going to have to approach it, Bernadette said it too, it's finding better ways to communicate. You say a flood flash flood emergency. How many more words can you add before you lose the public? Like don't drive because your car will start floating in a foot of water and things like that?

There's only so much attention span and bandwidth that you have to convey this information. The same thing when it came to the heat in the Pacific Northwest this summer and the floods in Germany, and there was an urban flooding in China. This is pervasive, this is everywhere. And we've got to learn how to interact between the scientists and the communicators and the people being communicated with. And it's going to be never-ending.

Bernadette, with people that like, say, if someone's sitting here right now watching from home and they say, okay, there were floods in China and there were floods in Europe. What does that have to do with what here for me? How does that change what I do? Why is that important to me? Tell everybody why that is.

Placky: First of all, everything is connected. We've learned that with COVID. I mean, that's a great science lesson right there, unfortunately in a very painful way. But everything is connected.

However, we unfortunately don't need to look to China anymore, we've seen it here now. It is all interconnected and everything we do does have an impact. Building upon what you're saying, communication is so key and breaking down these terms, but it's also it is the storytelling. Dave is so right.

Janice, you're in such a unique position in your whole station to tell these stories and it's personalizing and localizing. We can connect that storm in China to what's going on here. We can connect what's going on in the polar regions to what's going on here and why it matters because otherwise you are going to lose people and they're going to tune out.

I get very frustrated in the scientific world when they say "dumbing it down" because it's not, it's a serious skill to break down these complex subjects into simple terms. And honestly, I've told this to journalists so many times and meteorologists too, "you don't have to come up to speed on that terminology."

That's great in science circles, and have that conversation there, but know your audience, right? It's the golden rule of communication. And most people are not totally immersed in climate terminology. So that's where we're in a really unique position to be able to help them understand what these terms mean in ways that make sense.

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