extreme weather

Climate Change and Extreme Events Research Showcased at American Geophysical Union Meeting

By Dr. Michael Hiscock

Satellite image of large storm approaching the eastern United States

“Sandy” approaches the U.S. east coast, October 28, 2012. NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon with data courtesy of the NASA/NOAA GOES Project Science team.


Derechos. Blizzards. Polar vortexes. Superstorms. Whatever you call them, you’re probably aware of the extreme weather events that have occurred with increasing frequency the past few years. What you may not be aware of is their complicated relationship with climate change, air and water quality.

Although science will probably never be able to pinpoint the specific cause of any extreme weather event, there is rising evidence that human-caused climate change is increasing the probability of future such events. This will have astounding societal and environmental impacts, as climatic and meteorological extremes can affect the hydrologic and atmospheric processes that in turn impact water availability, and water and air quality for people around the world.

This week, at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting, I had the pleasure of convening a technical session focused on the complex interaction between climate change, extreme events, air and water quality. The session, Extreme Events and Climate Change: Impacts on Environment and Resources, was the largest global environmental change session at the meeting, and featured scientists and research teams from 20 different countries. Over two days, we saw more than 70 presentations on how climatic and meteorological extremes have changed and what their impact on resources and the environment will be.

In 2011, EPA released its first grant solicitation (“Request for Applications,” or RFA) to support research exploring the topic of extreme events and climate change. The request, Extreme Event Impacts on Air Quality and Water Quality with a Changing Global Climate, sought research proposals designed to provide the information and capacity needed to adequately prepare for climate-induced changes in extreme events, in the context of air and water quality management. We were looking to support research institutions that demonstrated the ability to develop assessments, tools and techniques, and demonstrate innovative technologies to achieve that.

The 14 institutions we supported, all of which presented at the above mentioned session, are currently seeking to better understand extreme events and establishing ways for climate scientists, impact assessment modelers, air and water quality managers, and other stakeholders to co-produce information necessary to inform sound policy in relation to extreme events and their impact on air and water quality within a changing climate.

The session provided an international networking event for top researchers to showcase their results: to better understand how local and regional extreme events will change in the future; to identify the impacts of extreme events on local and regional
water and air quality; and finally, how to disseminate the information effectively to stakeholders. Collaboration opportunities like this one will lead to comprehensive analyses of extreme events to better form sound policy for preserving and improving air and water quality and protecting human health for generations to come.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Hiscock is a project officer in the Applied Science Division at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. He supports scientists and engineers through the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants program to improve the scientific basis for decisions on air, climate, water and energy issues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Drink Water To Survive The Heat!

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By Lina Younes

As I was watching the news last night on the ongoing extreme weather conditions this summer, I was struck by something the reporter said. Did you know that heat waves are the most common cause of weather-related deaths in the United States? Did you know that heat waves have caused more deaths in this country than other extreme weather events (hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes) combined?

So, what is something we should do immediately to survive this extreme heat? Make sure that we drink plenty of water to stay hydrated!

The elderly, children and pregnant women are most susceptible to extreme temperatures. We should note that as part of the aging process, adults in their golden years tend to lose their sense of thirst. Thus, they are at a greater risk of dehydration and they are more vulnerable to environmental impacts.  On the other hand, children can easily become dehydrate during outdoor activities and they don’t recognize the symptoms of heatstroke. In children, what are some of these warning signs?

  • Decreased physical activity
  • Lack of tears when crying
  • Dry mouth
  • Irritability and fussiness

If you don’t drink cool water regularly, dehydration can lead to heat stroke which can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

What are some of the signs of heat stroke?

  • Skin is flushed, red and dry
  • Little or no sweating
  • Deep breathing
  • Dizziness, headache, and/or fatigue
  • Less urine is produced, of a dark yellowish color
  • Confusion, loss of consciousness
  • In adults, hallucinations and aggression

In addition to staying hydrated, stay in a cool place as much as possible.

How about people who have to work outdoors even during this extreme heat? They should try scheduling frequent rest periods with water breaks in shaded or air-conditioned areas. They should dress appropriately with loose, light-weight clothing and light colors. They should wear wide brimmed hats and sunglasses.

So, remember to drink cool water often. Enjoy the summer and stay safe. Do you have any recommendations on how to survive the heat? We love to hear from you.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Bathtub Preparedness Planning

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By Michael Dexter

Growing up in Florida the threat of extreme weather brought a rush of last minute preparations, and I clearly remember the urgency involved with preparing for such events. We would clear portions of the house likely to flood, park the car on high ground, and ready an inflatable dinghy. Like many people, we had stocks of food and bottled water. However, we also filled up the bathtub with water in case service was out for awhile. I guess you could say the bathtub became our prime–make that our only–backup water supply plan.

If we lost water pressure, we used a gallon of water from the tub for flushing. If directed by our health department, we boiled water to drink. When we needed to wash, we scooped another cup out of the tub. While I understood the need for personal preparedness, I never thought about how the broader community prepared for water service interruptions, or what could have happened if that interruption lasted for more than a day or two.

Today, EPA works with communities and water utilities across the country to help them prepare for extreme weather events like floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. The EPA’s Community-Based Water Resiliency Tool helps communities and utilities understand and plan for the widespread impacts that often accompany extreme weather events. The tool helps critical community services like healthcare facilities, energy producers, and firefighters assess and increase their own preparedness level by providing tools and resources to gauge their current level of preparedness.

Last May, EPA worked with St. Clair County, Michigan on a roundtable exercise using the tool. The meeting promoted a better awareness of interdependencies between water and other community services, fostered a greater understanding of the county’s water infrastructure, discussed potential community impacts of a water service interruption during an extreme weather event, and identified actions and resources needed to respond to, and recover from, a water emergency. Drills like this exercise are a tremendous opportunity for entities like St. Clair County to think strategically about how to respond to an emergency situation that could affect thousands of its residents.

Like your community or water utility, you can prepare for the impacts of an extreme weather event. Just go to ready.gov

About the author: Michael Dexter is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education participant with EPA’s Water Security Division. He lived in Southwest Florida for over two decades and experienced Hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Mitch among others. He currently resides in Washington, DC and works on the Community-Based Water Resiliency effort to help utilities, and the communities they serve, increase all hazard water preparedness.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Climate Change and Health: Lessons Learned from Older Americans

To continue the Agency’s efforts to expand the conversation on climate change, we are highlighting EPA climate change research with Science Matters articles. This post features research exploring the health effects of climate change and older Americans. 

Climate Change and Health: Lessons Learned from Older Americans
EPA researchers are exploring the links between climate change and health effects for older Americans. 

OldercouplestrollingClimate change is affecting a growing population of at-risk older Americans. Studies by EPA researchers and others find that seniors aged 65 and older are more vulnerable to hot temperatures and extreme weather events—effects which will become more frequent as the climate changes.

In a recent paper, “Climate Change and Older Americans: State of the Science” (Environ Health Perspect 121:15–22. 2013), EPA researchers reviewed the current “state of the science” about the links between climate change and health effects impacting older Americans.

The paper explores connections between what is expected to be an increase in the population of older Americans living in places relatively more affected by climate change. “Life expectancy has increased at the same time that we see a huge bubble of baby boomers headed into retirement. These demographic changes are happening even as the effects of climate change are becoming more widely recognized,” explains EPA economist and lead author Janet Gamble.

To assess the vulnerability of older Americans to climate change, the research team performed an extensive literature search.  From more than 400 citations identified, they selected nearly 100 papers to review that most closely addressed key terms describing characteristics of the older life stage; their vulnerability to climate-related impacts, and their overall health and well-being.

Older adults comprise 13% of the U.S. population today, but are expected to account for approximately 20% by 2040. They are also a diverse group, with differences in age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, degree of community or family support, general health or pre-existing medical conditions, and disability. These differences ultimately determine the extent of older adults’ vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

In addition, location matters.  “Older adults are retiring in areas, such as Florida, that experience a higher rate of extreme weather events,” notes Gamble, adding that more that 50% of older adults reside in only nine states, with Florida, California, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania accounting for the top five.

Regions with higher levels of older adults, such as the five states mentioned above, are likely to be particularly at risk to changing precipitation patterns, tropical storms, flooding, and the urban heat island effect, a term describing the warming of urban areas relative to their rural surroundings due to the prevalence of buildings, roads, and other dark, heat-absorbing surfaces.

The report finds that older adults living in poverty or on fixed incomes are likely to experience greater exposure to some climate-related impacts, especially the effects of heat waves or hurricanes. Poverty is a primary contributor to social vulnerability, as financial status affects their ability to respond quickly and effectively. Older adults living in poverty can be more vulnerable to property damage and loss due to lack of insurance, limited personal finances, and poor credit worthiness.  In addition, older adults living in poverty may not have transportation to evacuate an area during an extreme weather event and may live in substandard housing, also increasing their risks.

The authors highlight a number of measures, called adaptations, that may address such vulnerability.

Such adaptations promote effective community responses to risks thought to be climate-related and may include: community support networks, subsidization of air conditioners, and community-based registries to help identify and reach those who require evacuation assistance. Similarly, planting trees or installing green roofs can reduce the urban heat island effect.

Identifying effective adaptation measures and outlining the best ways to implement them continue to be a challenge.Oldercoupletakecellphonepicture

When asked about next steps, Gamble states, “I think there is more work to be done in assessing the vulnerability of at-risk populations. As a first step, we need to communicate the climate risks experienced by older adults to decision makers, public health and safety officials, and caregivers and advocates of aging populations.  Also, in the near term, it may be possible to build on and adapt some of the response strategies developed for heat waves and hurricanes and apply them to the broader set of climate change impacts affecting older adults.”

By investigating the relationship between climate change stressors and vulnerability to at-risk life stages such as older Americans, EPA researchers are helping to inform communities and others so they can be better prepared to protect human health.

Learn More

Climate Change and Older Americans: State of the Science (Online abstract)

EPA Research: Climate Change and Health

Preparing for Extreme Heat

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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A WARN-ing for Water Utilities

By John Whitler

For me, severe weather really hits home, particularly this week, which is Severe Weather Preparedness Week.  Growing up in the Midwest, I was always aware of the threat of severe weather. Tornado drills at school and emergency alerts on my home television instilled in me a profound respect for the power of severe weather.  Just as my school and parents took preparedness measures to help us be ready should something occur, I now work with drinking water and wastewater utilities to help them prepare and respond to severe weather.

When a severe weather event like a hurricane or flood happens, your water utility may not be able to provide you with clean and safe water—or any water at all—which is why it’s important that everyone be prepared for a disaster before it strikes. But today, water utilities are better able to help one another restore service to the public after a severe weather event through water and wastewater agency response networks, or WARNs. EPA helps support the establishment of WARNs, which are developed and implemented at the local level with the concept of utilities helping utilities.

WARNs enable a faster response and restoration of service than can otherwise be obtained through state or federal emergency response mechanisms.  This reduces the time that a system may be out of service and minimizes disruptions in providing clean and safe potable water to customers.

WARNs have responded to over 25 major incidents at water systems since 2005.  In 2011, the WARN in Alabama provided generators to a water utility in order to restore power and system operations following devastating tornados in Tuscaloosa.  Last year, the WARN in Minnesota provided critical staff and equipment to restore normal operations at several utilities impacted by the epic flooding in Duluth.

Severe weather events can inhibit your utility’s ability to deliver clean water, but a response network allows water utilities across the country to help one another restore service after an event like a hurricane or a flood. Photo credit: Eric Vance, U.S. EPA

Climate change impacts, such as increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, have become a source of growing concern across the U.S.  EPA’s Climate Ready Water Utilities initiative provides utilities with practical and easy-to-use tools to promote a clear understanding of climate science and adaptation options.  These adaption measures will help to reduce impacts to utility operations and ensure that customers will see fewer disruptions to their service.

Severe weather is a potential threat no matter where you live, so being prepared at home is very important. Through WARNs and our Climate Ready Water Utility initiative, we’re making sure water utilities are prepared, too.

About the author: John has been an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Office of Water since 2004.  John has participated in EPA’s response to severe weather events including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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