By Eira Tansey
On days with significantly bizarre but altogether pleasant weather, Midwestern politeness stifles me from responding to small talk observations of “unseasonably warm weather” with thoughts on climate change. When talking about the weather is the most neutral form of pleasantry exchange, no one wants to take a shit in the tiny pool of safe topics to discuss among strangers. And the reality is that it’s hard to communicate how disturbing this is when it’s… nice to not be freezing your tail off at the bus stop.
Sometimes though, the weather does things that are so weird, so unexpected, we grasp for explanations that locate the responsibility anywhere but our human activities: “An act of God,” or “a freak storm” is often our way to explain the unbearably explainable. When an August 2016 thunderstorm arrived in Cincinnati that caused highly localized flooding in neighborhoods far from the city’s rivers and creeks, everyone could genuinely state that it was something “no one saw coming,” at least according to the old patterns of summertime storms. In a city defined geographically, historically, and culturally by its proximity to the Ohio River, a flooding event with no connection to the local waterways accelerates us into uncharted territory. The explanations of divine, natural, and unusual phenomena lets us off the hook from looking at how our actions might be contributing to a climate that makes “acts of God” agonizingly routine. Absolved from culpability, we’re lulled into a new cycle of alternately marveling at, and shrugging off, increasingly strange weather.
A few months later, when much of the metro area had moved on and the state was still sorting out the disaster relief paperwork, weather reporting stations across Ohio reported some of the highest temperatures on record at the beginning of November. The Wilmington office of the National Weather Service noted,
“Several records were tied or broken at the start of the month. On the 1st, CMH (Columbus Airport) recorded 80 degrees, tying the old daily record set in 1950. Meanwhile, CVG (Cincinnati Airport) reached 82 degrees, breaking the old record of 80 degrees back in 1982, and DAY (Dayton Airport) tied their 1950 record of 79 degrees. The CMH and DAY values tied the highest temperatures ever recorded for November. The CVG value was the highest temperature ever recorded for November for the period of record.” (http://www.weather.gov/media/iln/climate_summary/ClimateReport_November2016.pdf)
For those of us who grew up occasionally experiencing flurries while trick-or-treating, there is something curiously enjoyable about walking around with short sleeves in early November. Into February, we had a bit of snow, but barely enough to call out the salt trucks more than a couple times. Several times in the past few weeks, we’ve experienced weather pushing over 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and even reaching towards the high 70s. Sometimes the weather shifts so quickly from freezing to balmy that not only do building pipes burst, but the bricks outside actually look like they’re sweating. This uncomfortable feeling of trying to decide between spring dresses or woolly winter tights in the morning and how that’s related to what is happening politically is at the heart of everything. Even right-wing talk radio show hosts are making half-hearted nervous jokes about global warming being a hoax. There is a polite denial going on steeped in Midwestern restraint, a courteous erasure of the growing warnings that the Midwest as a region will experience warmer, wetter, and predictably unpredictable weather as a result of climate change.
When it comes to national discussions over how climate change will affect the United States, the Midwest is often missing from this picture.When it comes to national discussions over how climate change will affect the United States, the Midwest is often missing from this picture. The East Coast and the Gulf Coast share concerns over hurricanes that develop in the Atlantic. While the West Coast faces occasional hurricane activity from the Pacific, it’s its massive droughts and wildfires that make the news. Of course, California has recently had its own version of weird, when a drought suddenly turns to flash floods, and dams begin to fail.
Perhaps we in the Midwest feel safe from the seas, like America’s climatic fallout shelter. And scientists’ own dependably cautious penchant for disclaimers about how a single event alone is not necessarily evidence of a long-term trend also mitigates against punching the local community-level climate alarm panic button. Indeed, regional climate models validate some of what we’re telling ourselves: that among US regions, the effects on the Midwest might be less horrifying than for our coastal neighbors. While the Midwest may be far from shores that are facing a twofold punch of rising sea levels and hurricanes, climatologists warn that we will also feel the pain of flooding. Economists and emergency managers note that climate change will have disruptive effects not just on the weather and natural systems, but on the Midwest’s cities, rural areas, and regional industries.
Although its future is unclear in the current administration, the United States government periodically issues a report known as the National Climate Assessment. The last report, issued in 2014, is over 800 pages, and highlights threats to various aspects of daily life such as transportation or human health, across every region of the US. According to the assessment, the Midwest will face numerous potentially dramatic changes to both urban and rural areas. Farming communities may face major reductions in crop yields, particularly when cold snaps take effect after warm temperatures have started (such as recent losses to Michigan’s cherry crops). In the Midwest’s urban areas, heat waves combined with pollution from the car-dependent transportation infrastructure will cause significant public health concerns. Given the many watersheds in the Midwest, flooding has always been a major hazard in the area, but the combination of aging drainage infrastructure and torrential downpours brought on by climate change will make the situation even graver.
Despite these predictions, Cincinnati’s historically strange weather patterns often make it difficult to communicate about climate change’s effects in our region. The joke growing up was, “if you don’t like the weather here, wait 15 minutes.” That 2016 flood in Cincinnati was caused by a rainstorm that parked over the city for several hours. It soon became clear that the rain was overwhelming the storm system as streets began to flood, and motorists became stranded on major streets and even I-71. Norwood — an independent city contained within the boundaries of the City of Cincinnati — experienced some of the most devastating flooding with 466 structures damaged. More than 1,900 properties in the metropolitan area were affected.Flooding in Cincinnati is typically associated with overflow from the Ohio River, or nearby tributaries like the Miami or Licking Rivers. As a child, I remember the 1997 floods that filled in the old Riverfront Stadium and caused the Anderson Ferry on the West Side of town to close. Cincinnatians who have been to Coney Island along the river know the massive monument that shows the marks from the 1937 floods that devastated communities up and down the Ohio River.
But what made the August 2016 floods so scary, and perhaps a harbinger of the future, is that the flooding took place in neighborhoods miles from any of Cincinnati’s rivers or creeks. Experts noted how unusual the storm was, and officials from the Metropolitan Sewer District said it qualified as a “100 year storm.” A more well-known version of this phrase, the “100 year flood,” is a moniker many risk-management experts would like to do away with. Too many people hear “100 year flood” and assume that an event may only happen once every 100 years, when in reality, as the Federal Emergency Management Association takes pains to point out, the 100 year flood phrase is a proxy for the theoretical possibility that a given area has a 1% chance of taking place annually.
The possibility for 100 year floods has long loomed over those living near floodplains, because those living within the hypothetical areas of higher risk are frequently required to carry flood insurance. But as unusual weather events may take place nowhere near flood plains, homeowners may often not carry flood insurance. What happens when people who never thought their high ground home would flood experience just that?
Summer 2016 ushered in strange and disturbing record-breaking weather all over the Midwest. According to a report from the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, cities in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio hit the warmest temperatures between June and August since recordkeeping began over 100 years ago. On one side of the Great Lakes, New York experienced drought that impacted farmers, while flash flooding in Wisconsin caused over $20 million in infrastructure damage. Several days of storms over Detroit last September led to flash flooding, resulting in highway ramps closed due to high water, a scene eerily reminiscent of similar flooded highways just a month before in Cincinnati.
In the immediate aftermath of the August Cincinnati storm and flooding, local neighbors came together in a way that even the most well-resourced Red Cross or FEMA could never hope to compete with. They set up a Facebook group called Norwood Strong, and churches, banks, businesses, and schools began posting messages faster than many flood victims could keep track of, stating they would be glad to stop by anyone’s house offering help cleaning up or extra clothing or bedding.
If Cincinnati functions as a cultural in-between, we’re increasingly glimpsing what climate change might look like in the in-between areas that are on the other side of the coastsThree months later, the state denied any disaster relief to Norwood and the other affected Cincinnati neighborhoods. The state said the county fell short of the assessed damage threshold required for disaster relief by around $800,000. More dramatically, the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati requested from the state over $25 million in relief for sewer pipes that were damaged in the storm, and only qualified for $1 million.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks weather-related events that cause more than $1 billion in damages. Compared to coastal states, Midwestern states face as many, and in some years more, devastating severe storms and flood events. Between 2006-2016, the center of the Midwest was particularly hard hit. Illinois and Missouri each racked up over 25 severe storm and flood events that registered billions of dollars in damage. Ohio, Indiana and Iowa experienced over a dozen similar events each.
Cincinnati historically, culturally, and geographically, straddles the dividing line between South and North. We’re not quite at the center of the Great Lakes-anchored Rust Belt, nor are we deep in Appalachia, but we’re close enough that both get mixed thoroughly within our regional identity. Ecologists define the in-between areas from one ecosystem to the next as an ecotone, and indeed, Cincinnati may be something of a cultural ecotone between north and south, urban and rural, Rust Belt and Appalachia.
If Cincinnati functions as a cultural in-between, we’re increasingly glimpsing what climate change might look like in the in-between areas that are on the other side of the coasts. This is scary enough on its own, but combined with aging energy, water, and transportation infrastructure and a new federal administration committed to doubling-down on climate denial, suddenly a future of strange weather takes on new levels of terrifying uncertainty.
Much of the current attention regarding the climate policy of the new administration has focused on President Trump and his appointees’ almost certain gutting of measures put in place to mitigate new fossil fuel emissions, such as the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and the US commitment to the Paris Agreement. Less attention has been paid to the critical need for adaptive infrastructure to deal with the inevitable. Due to climatic feedback loops, a certain amount of climate change is already taking place and will continue regardless of our mitigation efforts, even if we ceased all fossil fuel emissions tomorrow. America’s infrastructure is in terrible shape. Not only does it need to be replaced, it needs to be improved for the inevitable effects of climate change we’re already seeing, in order to protect people’s safety, homes, and businesses.
What would adaptive infrastructure look like? For Midwest cities like Detroit and Cincinnati, aging sewer and storm systems that were originally designed with a somewhat drier climate in mind a century ago are struggling to keep up with major storms. Development has meant that more areas have been paved over – so rain cannot penetrate the soil, and the permeable areas that can absorb rain are quickly overwhelmed. Water runs off non-permeable surfaces (ie sidewalks, roads, and parking lots) into drains, and the entire system struggles to keep up.
Many of the infrastructure improvements critical for climate change adaptation are too big for any state to take on, and will require large-scale investment that can only be provided by the federal government. For the little we know about Trump’s infrastructure plans, they are mostly centered on highly visible transportation projects (and, presumably, a wall), while comparatively little would go to maintaining and improving existing and invisible systems like drainage and water delivery lines that are critical to public health and safety. As the Flint water crisis shows us, cutting corners on invisible infrastructure is all too tempting to politicians whose allegiance to slashing costs blinds them to the penny wise and pound foolish neglect of infrastructure. And yet it is the invisible infrastructure such as drains, sewers, pumps, and pipes that assure a habitable environment.
We have plenty of scientific evidence to tell us what is likely to happen to the weather and water of the Midwest with the effects of climate change. The evidence is stacking up in quiet reports coming out of federal agencies and university research centers. But we don’t know yet how Midwestern states, cities, and communities will deal with it. And once we do come to terms with what’s happening here at home, it’s unclear if we’ll truly be on our own, given the discouraging signs from the new federal government regarding action on climate change and critical infrastructure. Our friends on the coasts have likely been forced to reckon with the everyday effects of climate change more than we have, as nuisance tidal flooding and preparation for hurricanes becomes more commonplace. At what point will our small talk shift to recognizing our inland markers of the inevitable for what they are?
Eira Tansey is an archivist from Cincinnati. She has lived in Ohio her whole life except for a delightful five-year detour in New Orleans.