Scientists say time has come to plan for climate change adaptation


From the Union of Concerned Scientists: Midwest Campaign Manager LuCinda Hohmann, and Jalonne White-Newsome, a post-doctoral fellow and report co-author


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It does not take a climatologist to tell people that temperature trends are heading up toward the hot end.

All researcher Jalonne White-Newsome, who is not a meteorologist, and her team at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) had to do is look up the temperatures over the last sixty years in select cities, develop a sound methodology for evaluation, and examine the results.

Though the graphs they developed zigzag all over the place, reflecting the extreme weather events that are also thought to be consistent with climate change, the temperature trend shows definitive increases.

In fact, in the five cities studied, Detroit had the most dramatic overall increases in the types of hot weather that are most damaging to human health.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is “the leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world.” Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome and the UCS Midwest Campaign Manager LuCinda Hohmann visited Michigan Environmental Council, in Lansing, last Friday to explain their results — and to advocate for cities to start planning to accommodate for the health challenges additional heat will pose.

Grand Rapids is ahead of the curve, because the city already has a climate change adaptation, as reported in the Dec. 1, 2010, issue of the Grand Rapids Legal News.

White-Newsome, who worked on a team under Larry Kalkstein of the University of Miami, said that UCS chose its methodology based on health impacts. Therefore, rather than studying simple temperatures, the group looked at air mass, loosely defined as “a large body of air with generally uniform temperature and humidity,” and divided the heat events into whether it was Dry or Moist, and — as used by the National Weather Service — its “source region,” in this case Tropical or Polar.

The researchers determined that the Dry Tropical (DT) and Moist Tropical (MT) high-temperature air masses were the most likely to compromise health and be perceived as unpleasantly, even dangerously, hot. By contrast, Dry Polar air masses would generally be considered “nice, warm summer days,” according to White-Newsome who added, “We chose the Midwest because as a region it’s not used to these heat extremes.”

UCS decided to look at not only whether there was an increase MT and DT days, but also whether DP days decreased.

Every one of the five cities chosen, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, showed a greater number of MT or “very hot humid” days over the years 1952 to 2011. (Detroit’s recordkeeping would only allow starting in 1959.)

Detroit increased by 172%, St. Louis by 200%, and Cincinnati increased by 208%.

Results were more mixed in terms of DT or “hot, dry” days. St. Louis showed no change, and Cincinnati decreased. The pleasant summer days decreased in every city studied.
With this increase come much greater numbers in heat-related health problems. The UCS reports that from 1999 to 2003, excessive heat killed about 3,440 U.S. residents, and as the numbers of incidents continues its upward trend, more and more people are likely to die or experience negative effects, including dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Vulnerable populations, which include the elderly, children, agricultural workers, and inner-city dwellers, will experience more heat-related health complaints, but also aggravation of existing conditions like asthma, diabetes, kidney disease, and heart disease.

An alternative scenario, the UCS report emphasizes, may possibly come about if work continues on adaptation policies and planning to prevent the worst consequences.
It is important to note that such policy planning is a social justice issue as well, since people in lower-income areas tend to suffer disproportionately from the heat.
White-Newsome’s additional anecdotal research around Michigan indicates that public health officials see very little planning taking place currently.

Grand Rapids is the exception, though the planning is coming from the city itself and its sustainability office, and not from the public health community.

Strategies included in the city plan address not only mitigation-type responses, such as increasing the extent  of the tree canopy in order to offset the heat, but also working on disaster response and preparedness to extreme weather, particularly heat.

The plan also calls for adding porous pavement to retain moisture (and to prevent polluted runoff from reaching water bodies such as the Grand River) and, one of its best-known provisions, for achieving 100% renewable power sources for city operations by 2020, which will also help protect against air-conditioner-related power outages during periods of high heat.

However, a more comprehensive plan in terms of geographical scope and agency involvement may be necessary to protect residents in a coordinated way.

The Kent County Health Department does publish a “Caution Heat Advisory” brochure, which tells about the symptoms of, for example, heat stroke (which is life-threatening) and how to help someone exhibiting those symptoms until medical help is on the way. The brochure suggests calling 211 (though it gives an outdated phone number for the United Way helpline), and 211 officials confirmed that they have resources to help. The American Red Cross Grand Rapids office on Fuller also set up a cooling center during the worst of July’s heat wave, as did some library branches. And Kent County Emergency Management track and publicize heat related alerts.

But there is little coordination or assurance that public health will not fall through the cracks of agency task assignments, things which are likely
to  come out of developing a countywide plan.

The difficulty with such planning is, as Hohmann and White-Newsome acknowledged, the task does not fall to any one agency or governmental unit between different jurisdictions. UCS hopes that by sounding the alarm, more people, particularly in the public health arena, will demand such plans.

All of the cities in the report, according to Hohmann, are working on adaptation plans. The plan in Detroit was spearheaded originally through Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit environmental group.

From a policy change point of view, UCS is not backing off from its position that “reducing the global warming emissions that are driving climate change” is still a top priority, but the report also prioritizes “building climate-resilient communities.”