I was deeply saddened to see our family, friends and fellow citizens suffering in Texas and its neighboring states. They shivered for days, burned furniture and slept in their cars to stay warm, and desperately scrounged for food and drinking water. Yet another moment when we had to ask ourselves, “Is this America?”
There was plenty of blame to go around — Texas’ independent energy grid, the lack of surplus natural gas on hand, the failure to weather-proof the entire system (renewable and carbon based) for the blast of frigid air from the Arctic known as a polar vortex. The cascading emergencies caused by the hard freeze in the deep south were each predictable, but only if one knew the extent of the cold air and bad weather that was about to “mess” with Texas.
Some decried this as a “black swan” event — historic, rare — once in a lifetime, and random. But the truth is, it was not.
We knew it was coming
As far back as Jan. 5, climate forecasters started sounding the alarm about the coming cold wave. The Washington Post reported that “a dramatic spike in temperatures is occurring at high altitudes above the North Pole,” and that the “unusually strong event may have profound influences on the weather in the United States and Europe, possibly increasing the potential for paralyzing snowstorms and punishing blasts of Arctic air.”
Seasonal weather forecasters noted that this kind of sudden Arctic warming event happens about six times in a decade and that this one was unusually intense. But they predicted that no one would care until the snow hit their backyards. So true.
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Another round of warnings were sounded in late January and early February, when news outlets from Minnesota to New Jersey told their audiences to get ready because the polar vortex is coming. These polar vortex events have happened more often in recent years, it seems. People across the northern and eastern parts of the country still remember the polar vortex event in the winter of 2013-14, which caused $4 billion in losses, in the winter of 2017-18, when the temperature dropped into the single digits and stayed that way for more than two weeks. Then-President Donald Trump famously tweeted about wanting some “good old fashioned global warming” during another polar vortex event that gripped the midsection of the country in January of 2019.
Texas had experienced one before too — back in the winter of 2010-11.
When will we have had enough?
How is it that Americans keep finding ourselves in the grip of a never ending series of extreme weather emergencies caused in part by climate crisis? We had the repeated and devastating fires of last fall and the fall of 2018. There were a record number of hurricanes last summer. At the same time, Phoenix’s high temperatures last year also broke records — more than 140 days of 100 degrees or higher. And there has even been a wind storm on the plains that literally blew the corn out of the ground for hundreds of miles, and ferocious floods in the Midwest have swept livestock away.
Texas winter storms:I went 55 hours without power in freezing Austin. At least I’m alive.
Climate change is clearly happening and it could happen to you — and there is no vaccine for the climate crisis. We need to do a better job of dealing with it, to state the obvious.
Last year there were a record 22 extreme weather disasters exceeding $1 billion in losses. Our response is no surprise — we assume that the best we can do is to have boxed meals, blankets, generators and first responders ready for when climate disasters, like bolts of lightning out of the blue, strike again. Government support and resources to respond to these crises once they hit are imperative.
Get out ahead of the problem
But there is also much more we can do to get “left” of the “boom” of each climate-related weather disaster. Crisis managers describe the cataclysmic events that stop our world in its tracks as a “boom.” Response missions are right of boom — they deal with events after they happen. But the bigger payoff comes from left of boom missions — those that attempt to get ahead of the boom and prevent it from being an emergency in the first place.
What does this mean in practical terms? In the short run we need to do climate stress tests — look at critical infrastructure — dams, the electric grid and power systems, water systems, and supply chains — to make sure they can withstand the worst climate events we can envision. Then we need to act on that information. Federal investigators did test and investigate the Texas grid, but the state did not heed the results. Why? Perhaps because they thought the extreme weather events were too random and rare. Without knowing how much they were at risk for the next polar vortex, why prepare?
So in addition, we need to improve the science involved in predicting these extreme events well ahead of time so that we have a much better understanding of where the risks are the highest in the first place. It turns out that some government scientists believe they could, if we put their minds to it, begin to better predict the type, magnitude, frequency and location of extreme weather events weeks to even months ahead. We could forecast them, just like we forecast daily weather. And with forecasts we can be much smarter about preparing for disasters instead of just waiting for them to happen.
The irony of this week is that while Houston had a problem — a really bad one — NASA landed a spacecraft on Mars to explore that planet. A chief NASA engineer said on Thursday, that “When we put our arms together and our hands together and our brains together, we can succeed.” Right on. But let’s put all that brainpower to work better understanding our own planet so that we can seriously improve our lives on Earth.
Monica Medina is a former principal deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Obama administration and the co-founder and CEO of Our Daily Planet, an environmental daily e-newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @MonicaMedinaDC