PennFuture Blog

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Of Floods and our Future

By Larry J. Schweiger, President Emeritus, PennFuture

Pennsylvania has a history of floods but none like what we are experiencing today. The earliest floods recorded in 1786, 1810 and 1820 were called "pumpkin floods" because native Americans grew their pumpkins along rich floodplain soils. During fall hurricanes, pumpkins were swept into the rivers.

Later, loggers destroyed the virgin forests and fires burned. Passing storms and denuded mountainsides caused rapid runoff and flooded communities. The connection between denuded mountainsides and floods was clear in 1895 when Dr. Joseph Rothrock was hired as the first forestry commissioner to acquire and restore damaged forests. Rothrock warned, "Unless we reforest, Pennsylvania's highlands will wash into the oceans.” The Commonwealth purchased the worst of the denuded lands from lumber companies, creating many state forests.

Today, the pumpkins are gone and the hillsides are reforested, but cars are being washed away during unprecedented "rain bomb" events. The dramatic and unprecedented uptick in floods from superstorms and hurricanes is an early warning sign of what is coming our way in terms of the many impacts of climate change. Why are we experiencing increasing storms with record-breaking rainfall?

Simply put, our lawmakers have ignored scientific warnings for many decades, and now we are entering what will be a time for consequences. Yet, daily, humans continue to dump 110 million tons of heat-trapping pollution into the sky. It turns out that 93 percent of the energy trapped by carbon dioxide, methane, and other pollutants is channeled into the oceans. Warmer waters pump vast amounts of moisture into the skies. Heat equivalent to a staggering 400,000 Hiroshima-scale bombs is added to the oceans each and every day. Overheated waters produce elevated storm intensities.

Every corner of the world is experiencing the consequences of climate change. The American West has been overheated, drying out and catching on fire. The California firefighters painfully understand the results of our failure to end the burning of fossil fuels. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico and of the Caribbean don't flush well and are particularly vulnerable to overheating. From Hurricanes Katrina, Maria, and Harvey, Gulf Coast communities and our island territories have experienced unprecedented storms on steroids from hurricanes passing over overheated water.

The Northeast, including Pennsylvania, is increasingly vulnerable as the Gulf Stream warms and slows down. Let us not forget Superstorm Sandy or a much earlier Hurricane Agnes that destroyed 68,000 homes and ruined 3,000 businesses. On August 17th, Governor Tom Wolf signed a disaster emergency proclamation in response to a series of severe rainstorms up to ten inches in some areas that triggered damage to homes and businesses throughout much of north and central portions of the state. It was the second time in 2018 that the Governor declared a state of emergency as a massive snowstorm battered Eastern Pennsylvania and brought down thousands of trees and destroyed homes and businesses in the Poconos. Paradoxically, climate change can trigger more significant snowstorms as well as more winter rainfall. 

Pittsburgh’s February weather was a record breaker, including the warmest February day on record with temperatures nearly 40 degrees above normal and a 7” month-long rainfall record. Saturated soils initiated mudslides in Duquesne Heights, Babcock Boulevard, Garfield, Spring Hill and Route 30 just to name a few of the dozens of massive landslides that occurred locally in 2018. 

The 1977 Johnstown flood is the kind of flood pattern we must fear. The storm just hung over the hills above Johnstown and caused 76 deaths, leaving $330 million in property damage. We are experiencing similar intense, often nearly-stationary “rain bombs” triggering flash-floods, mudslides overwhelming towns and roadways. When increased atmospheric water vapor combines with a disrupted and wavier Jetstream, strong storms can be held in place longer. A 4th of July storm hovered over Fox Chapel, O'Hara Township and Aspinwall, flooding streets and bringing down trees and power lines. Twice in one week, the Delafield Road-Freeport Road area suffered substantial damage. 

What must we do to protect our communities from the ravages of floods? First, we must shut off the spigot of pollution by demanding that Congress overcome fossil-fuel's powerful grip and put a price on carbon emissions to quickly move our economy to carbon-free energy. Lawmakers must also incentivize efficient homes, cars, and businesses, cutting the demand for such fuels.

Second, historical 100-year floods are no longer a relevant land planning standard. Federal flood maps can’t keep up with growing flood risks and must be redrawn based on climate modeling. Stormwater infrastructure must also be built with more significant storms in mind. Banks must say no to flawed construction in places with unstable slopes or flood-prone hazards. All new land developments must be required to hold much more runoff.

Third, to address the relentless mega-storms and multi-billion-dollar floods, the Federal Flood Insurance Program must be updated with rates that reflect the real costs of the risks and include all areas that are now vulnerable.

Finally, climate disruption is a relentless feature in our world, but we must work together to avoid the worst that will inevitably come if we continue to ignore the connection between pollution and destructive climatic forces. Let's put aside every political difference and work together to protect our children's future.

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