IPCC report urges better civic planning for extreme weather

The human and economic costs of extreme weather are rising, and so is the need for better early-warning and social response systems, insurance and improvements infrastructure.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Cities, states and national governments must plan more carefully for the cost of weather events such as floods, heat waves, droughts and hurricanes as these events become more frequent and more extreme. That's one of the main themes of the latest Intergovernmental Planel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the human impact of extreme weather events.

The report predicts that the sorts of weather that many regions of the world have been experiencing throughout 2011 will continue, in many instances at a much more intense pace.

The IPCC says that means hotter, longer heat waves. More sustained periods of precipitation. Decreases in cold extremes. And also more economic losses due to same. Consider, for example, that weather-related disasters in the United States are hovering around $50 billion for 2011. That's according to the National Climate Data Center, which tracks such things.

The UN report suggests that, moving forward, we should expect more of the same. Here are some of the specific predictions:

  • It is "likely" that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase over many regions.
  • It is "virtually certain" that temperature extremes will become much more pronounced (hotter highs and lower lows).
  • It is "likely" that the average wind speed of tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will increase;  however, the good news is that it is also "likely" that there will be little change in their frequency.
  • Droughts will intensify in southern Europe, the Mediterranean region, central Europe, central North America, Central America, Mexico, northeast Brazil and southern Africa. The IPCC cites "medium confidence" for this forecast.
  • It is "very likely" that the average sea level will rise.

"For the high emissions scenario, it is likely that the frequency of hot days will increase by a factor of 10 in most regions of the world," said Thomas Stocker, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I. “Likewise, heavy precipitation will occur more often, and the wind speed of tropical cyclones will increase while their number will likely remain constant or decrease."

That's the worst case scenario, of course, but the UN is urging cities, states and other government agencies to plan more proactively.

I know it is very provincial of me, but I'll use a couple of examples that are close to home to illustrate what I'm talking about.

You will probably recall that on Dec. 26, 2010, the New York metropolitan area was snowed under by an intense blizzard that seemed to catch a lot of the local governments by surprise. In New York City, the weather was blamed for at least two deaths, because rescue workers were unable to navigate the unplowed streets. Fast forward to September 2011. As Hurricane Irene approached, a number of local officials took no chances, declaring states of emergency and ordering mandatory evacuations. Again, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was criticized, this time for being too alarmist. Across the river in Oakland, N.J., though, dozens of home owners were almost stranded when the Ramapo River crested at least 36 hours earlier than anticipated.

I mention these examples to remind us what we all know: the human ability to accurately predict the weather is woefully deficient. When you're talking about scattered showers, it is an inconvenience. When you're talking about a 4-inches-per-hour deluge, it is another matter entirely.

The summary edition of the UN report (the full version isn't available until February 2012) urges a number of measures that governments and communities should be taking to better prepare. Those measures include better early-warning systems, innovations in insurance policies, different sorts of infrastructure investments, and better social response strategies.

"These climate changes impacts have become so clear and so close now that we need fast, aggressive mitigation if we hope to avoid the worst consequences," said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.

Easier said than done, of course, especially in these times of budget cuts related to virtually anything that isn't right in front of our faces.

(Images courtesy of Stock.xchng)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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