Intense Storms Are Battering Towns and Revealing Destructive Power of Climate Change

When I was a child growing up in New Jersey, we looked forward to summer rains. They pierced the muggy heat and left crisp cool temperatures in their wake. In the past few years, however, summer storms have taken on a more ominous tone.  Climate change has intensified storm patterns, and all too often, today’s storms bring costly destruction instead of welcome relief.

At the end of June, a powerful string of thunderstorms--called a derecho--hurdled from Indiana to Delaware in just 10 hours, unleashing winds up to 80 miles an hour. The storms left 23 people dead and 2.5 million without power for days. Cleaning up the debris and damage will take far longer.

Another potent storm dumped up to 10 inches of rain in Minnesota and Wisconsin a week earlier, flooding homes, shattering rainfall records, and prompting a polar bear to escape from a swamped Lake Superior Zoo.

These are just some of the many storms sweeping the nation these days. Some cause minimal damage—downed trees and snapped electrical wires. But others do lasting harm to people’s livelihoods and communities.

I will never forget what Tropical Storm Irene did to the Adirondack region of New York last August. Small towns I’ve visited all my life were pummeled by relentless rains and crushing winds. In the Keene, sheets of rain turned a small brook into a surging torrent that swept away the fire house, a mobile home, propane tanks, and the back porch of a café. Homes were swamped with mud and water. Even more troubling, the town’s main road was washed away, disconnecting it from the main artery that brings tourists and business into the community.

Farmers were especially hard hit by Irene. The flooding was so bad that some had to use canoes to cross their fields, while others lost livestock. “In about 20 minutes, the water level went from nothing to 7 feet high,” said David Lloyd. Nearly 50 of his animals drowned, mostly calves that were too small to stay above water. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated the storm caused more than $7 billion in damages.

Storms are common in the summer, but climate change can turn routine events into something extreme. It loads the atmosphere with more moisture, packing storms with more power and precipitation. Even areas receiving less rain overall are experiencing more concentrated downpours.

Right now, most of the Midwest is suffering through the worst drought in 50 years.  But the region also experiences increasingly intense storms. The number of severe downpours in the region has doubled over the last half century, according to a report from the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and NRDC. This trend has severe consequences. In recent years, deluges have washed out Cedar Rapids, IA, forced the Army Corps of Engineers to intentionally blow up levees to save Cairo, IL, and sent the Missouri River over its banks for hundreds of miles.

Storms may be a fact of life, but extreme events of ever-increasing strength do not have to be. We can defuse this growing threat by reducing the carbon pollution that causes climate change.

We can start by expanding clean energy resources like wind and solar. Roughly 35 percent of all new power generated in America in the past four years has come from wind energy. This is a good start, but several lawmakers want to kill one of the key incentives for this growth: the Production Tax Credit. Our leaders must extend this incentive and promote policies to ramp up clean energy and energy efficiency.

We must also cut carbon pollution from dirty fossil fuels. The Obama Administration has proposed clean car standards that will cut vehicle carbon pollution in half and carbon limits for new power plants. Now it should set limits for existing power plants as well.

These commitments will help America reduce carbon pollution and stabilize the climate. If we fail to make these changes, destructive storms will become the norm. But if act now, we can help ensure that most summer storms bring cool, wet relief instead of costly damage.