Monday, September 12, 2011

Adapting to the New Normal

Last Thursday, when Yuriko and I woke up, the Schuylkill River had creeped over the bank and was inching toward the road. We checked the Weather Channel website and saw that more rain was predicted for most of the day, and that the river was not expected to crest until sometime that evening. We realized that pretty soon the road would be impassable. If we left for work, we'd likely be unable to return that night. If we didn't leave for work, we might be stuck at home for awhile. We decided to do the "responsible" thing (responsible as employees--not necessarily as homeowners) and abandon the abode, taking with us toiletries, an extra set of clothes, and Baylor (the dog). We ended up staying at the Homewood Suites that night--a pet-friendly hotel on higher ground.

By stomping through some neighbors' backyards later in the day, Yuriko was able to return briefly to check on the basement and the cats. Luckily, there was no damage. Here's a picture she took that shows our road, lawn, and driveway as they merged with the Schuylkill.

By Friday morning, the river had receded and we were able to get back home. Some mud and debris were left behind, but we considered ourselves very lucky that the house was completely unaffected.

We know that many others were not so lucky. I kept seeing reports on the news and facebook from my former town--Binghamton, NY, where I lived for six years--that showed immense flooding. The Susquehanna, it seems, had reached an historic level, wreaking an extraordinary amount of damage. In 2006, when I was still living up there, a record-setting flood swamped many riverside homes and businesses, dealing a serious blow to an already weak and vulnerable economy. That flood had been the worst in recorded history for Binghamton. Last week's flood was worse still. Floods of this magnitude, according to experts, should be expected roughly once every century. The upper Susquehanna valley has had 2 in 6 years.

Meanwhile, Texas is literally on fire--Texans are experiencing an unprecedented drought that has destroyed cattle farms and ignited hundreds of wildfires.

For me, this is pretty convincing evidence of what many climate scientists have been saying for awhile: global warming is creating atmospheric conditions in which extreme weather events will happen with both greater frequency and intensity. As Heidi Cullen, whom my students will read later this semester, has written, "the weather is getting more extreme. The conditions have arisen for more major storms, longer droughts, and serious flooding, and they are getting worse." What can we as individuals do to diminish our contributions to climate change and to encourage governments and companies to invest in the infrastructure and technology that will help us adapt?

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