WASHINGTON – Deadly weather will hit the US more often, and America needs to cope better, experts said as Texas and other states battled winter storms that left the worst plans of utilities, governments and millions of trembling residents behind.
This week’s storms – more of which are heading eastwards – fit a pattern of worsening extremes under climate change and again show that local, state and federal officials have not done enough to prepare for bigger and more dangerous weather.
At least two dozen people have died this week, including from fire or carbon monoxide poisoning, while struggling to find warmth in their homes. In Oklahoma City, an Arctic explosion dropped temperatures in the state capital to 14 degrees below 0 (-25 degrees Celsius).
“This is a different kind of storm,” said Kendra Clements, one of several Oklahoma City business people who opened their buildings to protect the homeless, some with frostbite, hypothermia and icicles in their hair. It also heralded what social service providers and governments will see as increasing needs for the most vulnerable people in society as the climate and natural disasters worsen.
Other Americans are also at risk. All kinds of power supplies failed in extreme cold, including natural gas power plants that were shut down in freezing conditions and, to a lesser extent, wind turbines that were frozen and stopped working. More than 100 million people live in areas where winter weather warnings, clocks or warnings and power outages in some parts of the country go on for days.
The crisis has alarmed power systems across the country: as climate change worsens, severe conditions beyond historical norms are becoming more common. Texas, for example, expects electricity needs to peak in the heat of summer, not in the depths of winter, as it did this week.
The dire storms come when President Joe Biden plans to spend up to $ 2 trillion on infrastructure and clean energy investments over four years. Biden has pledged to upgrade the U.S. electricity grid by 2035 to be carbon-free, weather-proof buildings, repair roads, and build electric vehicle charging stations.
“Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather conditions and changing climates will play an essential role in job creation and the achievement of Biden’s goal of a ‘zero-emission future’,” said Jen Psaki, White’s press secretary House on Wednesday.
The storms are big news this week, especially considering their impact on COVID-19 vaccinations as well as freezing Americans, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get any more common, experts say.
“This was definitely an anomaly,” but one that is likely to be more common due to climate change, said Sara Eftekharnejad, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Syracuse University.
“There’s probably got to be better planning as we’re starting to see more extreme weather events across the country,” she said, whether there was the severe cold in Texas or the intense California heat wave last year that started deadly forest fires.
Better forecasting – both short term and long term – would help avoid catastrophic outages like the current outages in Texas and other states, as well as large storage systems that can provide power when demand increases and a wider variety of power sources. Eftekharnejad and other experts said.
Climate change also affects military readiness. For example, the damage caused by a hurricane in 2018 at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and the floods in 2019 at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska resulted in the Pentagon sending service members all the way to the UK to train.
Another hurricane in 2018 that struck Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which is home to a third of the capabilities of the U.S. Marine Corps, caused enough damage to affect training as a whole, senior U.S. military authorities concluded.
It will cost trillions to harden military assets against worsening natural disasters. But it has to be done, said Joan VanDervort, a former long-time Defense Department climate expert who now works at the Center on Climate and Security’s think tank. “We have eyes overseas that look at our vulnerabilities and see how we react. … There are enemies out there who are sure to take advantage of this. “
Michael Craig, Assistant Professor of Energy Systems at the University of Michigan, said the events in California and Texas show that “what we have now is not going to do it in the face of climate change. It only gets worse from here. “
The disaster in Texas and other states “is a reminder that our country’s critical infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme weather events and we can no longer ignore the resiliency investments needed to protect it,” said Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., Chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, who met with Biden at the White House last week.
“The cost of fighting climate change and making our infrastructure more resilient will always be less than the cost of rebuilding it or not,” Carper said.
Meanwhile, federal regulators are investigating the operation of the mass flow system during the severe winter storm that struck states from Louisiana to Minnesota.
In Texas, where wind power is a growing source of electricity, wind turbines are generally not equipped to withstand prolonged low temperatures, as is the case in Iowa and other cold-weather states. According to Roy McCann, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Arkansas, a move is to slightly modify the turbines to withstand freezing temperatures to counter climate change.
While some Republican politicians, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, have tried to blame wind and solar power for the outages, traditional thermal power plants, which rely primarily on natural gas, provide most of the electricity in the state and have been the bigger problem.
“The whole system was overwhelmed,” said Joshua Rhodes, an energy research fellow at the University of Texas.