JANUARY 29, 1997
Throughout much of the West, Northwest and Midwest the weather has been the story of 1997. Record floods, cold and snow have created havoc and caused well over a billion dollars in damage and taken the lives of many. Why is the weather so extreme? To look for some answers, Margaret Warner talks to an environmental expert, and the director of California's Office of Emergency Services.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
January 3, 1997:
Charles Krause reports on the floods in the West.
December 30, 1996:
Jim Lehrer talks to Washington Gov. Mike Lowry about the punishing weather in his state.
September 16, 1996:
Betty Ann Bowser reports on Hurricane Fran.
Browse Online NewsHour's weather coverage.
The National Weather Service
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
JIM LEHRER: Now the cold, the rain, and the snow. Margaret Warner has a weather report short and long-term.
ANNOUNCER: The worst flooding in a century is still rolling through.
ANNOUNCER: This morning people in the northern plains are recovering from the fifth blizzard of the season.
MARGARET WARNER: Ever since Christmas the national news has been dominated by reports about the weather.
ANNOUNCER: Much of Minnesota is closed down because of the high snowdrifts and bitter winds that are blowing down.
MARGARET WARNER: First, the West and Northwest were devastated by snow and ice storms. Then warmer weather brought rains that led to flooding and more destruction. In California alone the storms have caused eight deaths and more than $1.6 billion in damage. Rising waters and ruptured levels have forced many residents to evacuate their homes.
MAN: I didn't think it'd get this bad. We've been here since 1978, but it's bad now, and we had to go now.
MARGARET WARNER: Residents of Oregon and Washington State have also been forced to seek shelter as severe storms knocked out power in thousands of homes. California was hit once more this past weekend. Again storms filled the swollen rivers and soaked already-saturated ground. And again residents had to be rescued from their homes. Though the weekend rains didn't cause any serious casualties, they did make an already bad situation worse. A massive mudslide closed heavily traveled Highway 50, and even people living at higher elevations worked furiously to save their possessions. It's not just the coastal region that has suffered this winter.
Earlier this month the Pacific storms moved inland to cause havoc in California's Yosemite National Park. More than 2,000 tourists and park employees were stranded when the Merced River flooded. They had to be airlifted to safety.
In nearby Reno, Nevada, flooding forced the closing of many casinos that usually stay open 24 hours a day. In Idaho, farmland was inundated, and mudslides washed away many roads, including the state's only North-South highway. Elsewhere, snow was the culprit, as blizzards buried parts of New Mexico and Arizona.
WOMAN: It stranded us in a very expensive motel for the night--(laughing)--five kids in a motel room.
MARGARET WARNER: In Arizona, the National Guard was sent in to provide food, water, and medical supplies to truckers and travelers stuck in the snow. And the harsh weather has devastated the Dakotas. Farmers are dumping their fresh milk, some $9,000 a day worth, because the impassable roads make delivery impossible. Farmers are counting their dead cattle too, fearing they have lost as much as 1/4 of the area's total cattle population. Even the South has felt the wrath of Mother Nature. Unexpected frost has ruined many of Florida's winter crops.
Is what we've just seen an isolated phenomenon, or part of a broader trend that governments and individuals must adjust to? We explore that question now with two people who study the weather from very different perspectives. Robert Watson is senior scientific adviser at the World Bank's Environment Department and is also an incoming chairman of the UN-sponsored Panel on Climate Change. Richard Andrews is the director of California's Office of Emergency Services. Welcome, gentlemen.
And Robert Watson, starting with you, are we seeing a long-term shift toward more extreme weather?
ROBERT WATSON, Climatologist: The answer is yes. There's been some very good analysis that shows that the amount of rainfall is increasing in the United States, especially in winter. But also what we're seeing is more heat waves. And when the rain does fall, it falls in very, very heavy deluges. So we're certainly seeing a shift to more deluges, more shift to higher temperatures, and this is leading to floods and droughts.
MARGARET WARNER: And we're seeing that elsewhere in the world as well?
ROBERT WATSON: We've certainly seen throughout the world temperatures increase and changes in participation patterns. We're in the middle of carefully analyzing just whether the extreme events have changed. Certainly the insurance industry in Europe is very worried. They've done their own analysis of the severe weather in Europe. And they've ascertained a very significant change in weather which really worries them from an insurance standpoint.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Andrews, from what you've seen in California in your years there, does this jibe with what you've seen, that this is a long-term development?
RICHARD ANDREWS, California Office of Emergency Services: (Sacramento) Well, certainly over the course of the last five years here in California we've had more than our share of extreme events, and I think, you know, across the whole country, the number of disasters that have occurred, the vast majority of which are directly connected in one way or another to severe weather would at least suggest that, you know, that the cost to government, the cost to individuals, you know, have gone up. I'm not sure about long-term trends. And given what we've been through here in California over the last month, we're happy with every day that we have that goes by without severe rain falling some place in the areas that have been so heavily impacted.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Robert Watson, what is the cause of this?
ROBERT WATSON: We can't ascribe any single flood or any single drought to any particular event. It may be natural climate variability, but the long-term trend is likely to be associated with what we call global warming. This is a human-induced change in the climate system. We're putting gases into our atmosphere such as carbon dioxide to act as a blanket. It traps the heat closer to the earth's surface. And what all the models, all the theories suggest is as the earth's system gets warmer, we will see more heavy precipitation events, more droughts.
MARGARET WARNER: And can we say how much warmer the earth has become in a certain period of time?
ROBERT WATSON: Over the last 100 years the earth has warmed about one degree Fahrenheit, and that's half a degree Centigrade. What we also project is over the next 100 years the earth could warm another one and a half degrees Fahrenheit to as much as another six and a half degrees Fahrenheit.
MARGARET WARNER: Now it seems clear why warmer weather would mean hotter, drier summers, but why does it mean wetter, more snowy winters?
ROBERT WATSON: What happens is when you have a warmer world, there is more evaporation from water from the oceans, more water goes up into the atmosphere, and when it effectively becomes stable, it rains. And so you have a situation where the rate of evaporation is higher; the atmosphere is able to hold more water; and so when it does rain, you get more heavy rainfall events and actually less moderate rainfall events.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Andrews, how are state and local governments coping with this?
RICHARD ANDREWS: Well, in a whole variety of ways. For state governments, local governments, and the federal government, the overall cost of responding to, recovering from the disasters and emergencies that have occurred in the last four or five years has gone--the costs have gone steadily up. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, their costs have gone from about $3 billion over a five-year period to over $13 billion over a five-year period , and expenditures by state governments and by local governments, likewise, have gone up very, you know, very dramatically. Here in California in response to the earthquake risk, we've had to set up our own state earthquake insurance program. We're right now under an executive order by Governor Wilson taking a look at the--the long-term implications of what we've just been through. And what kind of changes do we need to make in our land use policy, in the way in which we manage the watersheds in Northern California to try, to try to deal with this.
Clearly, there are things that we can do at the state level, at the local level, and sentence at the federal level to try to reduce our risks. Certainly I think that reducing risks from flooding is perhaps one of the more manageable things that we can do, but, again, it's going to take the combined efforts of the private sector, local government, state government, as well as the federal government, and clearly, this is a problem with a lot of implications. I must say I'm not encouraged by the long-term forecasts that Mr. Watson is referencing, but I think that it's something that the state and local and federal government are really going to have to take a look at. We cannot continue to simply pour funds into rebuilding our communities after these disasters, particularly when we're doing it in a repetitive way, the Congress is very concerned about this here in California. Our state legislature is very concerned about it, and obviously the insurance industry is concerned about it.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just clarify something. Are you saying that already state and local and federal government has begun factoring this in in terms of budget projections and so on, or are you saying you're concerned that that's not happening enough yet?
RICHARD ANDREWS: Well, the way it's being factored in in terms of state and local and federal costs right now is in the cost of rebuilding in the aftermath of these various emergencies and disasters that occurred. I think what we need to do, again what Congress has started to do and what many state legislatures have started to do, and the insurance industry, is to pay as much attention to how we begin to manage the risk that we face. The flood problem--there are a number of things that can be done by individuals, as well as by communities and state and federal governments, to reduce that risk. I think what I'm saying is that we can't just focus on disaster recovery. We have to focus on putting attention in reducing the risk, in managing the risk, and trying to cope with the environmental dangers that we face. There are a whole variety of things--land use plannings, what we build, where we build it, how we maintain our flood control systems. All of these things factor in to how we deal with the costs and how we use the insurance mechanisms of the private sector to try to assist us and provide incentives to individuals and governments to help reduce risk.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Mr. Watson, worldwide our government's in the process of taking all this into account in their planning, and, if so, how?
ROBERT WATSON: To some degree. There is a convention to protect the earth's climate system, and, in fact, this year at a ministerial meeting in Japan in December there will hopefully be an agreement at least amongst the developed countries to reduce their use of energy, or at least to change their energy practices so they'll emit less greenhouse gases. This is a serious issue. This is why the World Bank is also quite concerned about this issue. Climate change is not only an issue of flooding. It could have very adverse effects for human health, for agriculture, for forestry, for fisheries, and also for our natural ecological system--and our natural forests. So this is something that affects people.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain one thing for us. Several years ago when global warming was first talked about, maybe as much as ten years ago, there was a huge controversy over whether it was even happening, and, if so, what was the cause. Is that controversy still alive, less? Explain just briefly for us.
ROBERT WATSON: The very large majority of scientists do believe that the earth is warmed, they do believe that some of that can be ascribed to human activity, and they do believe the climate will change even more in the future. There is a small vocal minority that still challenge the data and challenge the models. But the large majority of scientists in universities, government, and throughout the world do believe this is a serious threat that we have to work out collectively.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Andrews, in California, are--do the state and local political officials see a connection between policies, environmental and otherwise, and energy use that might be causing this? In other words, are they addressing that as well, as well as in the emergency management area? Is that connection being made in the political debate yet?
RICHARD ANDREWS: It is in many ways. Certainly there's a great deal of discussion, debate, and controversy over how the regulatory standards that we've set up to deal with various environmental issues, how those impact our ability to manage the risk, whether it's the risk from flooding or the risk from the wildfires that occur here, and really devastated much of California during this--during this past summer. There are many people that believe that there are elements of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental acts which really act to minimize or prevent or in some cases almost preclude taking appropriate steps to try to manage the risk. And I think all of these things need to be assessed. It certainly is part of the discussion here in California, was in ‘95, when we had serious flooding. It was in ‘93 when we had wild land fires in southern California. It is again in 1997, as we face the flooding that we expect may go on here for several more months.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So, Mr. Watson, if the warming doesn't abate and if we're really headed, as you said, as many as five degrees over the next hundred years, what will that really mean in terms of changing life on this planet?
ROBERT WATSON: What it will mean is we'll see more cases of vector-born diseases in the tropics. That's Dengi Fever, malaria. We'll see agricultural production possibly increase in America and Canada but significantly decrease, unfortunately, in the tropics and sub-tropics, where we've already got hunger and famine. We'll see sea level rise that could displace tens of millions of people in Bangladesh and in southern China and whole islands like the Maldive Islands and the Marshall Islands could be significantly inundated.
The shore lines of America could be severely attacked. We'll see shifts in agricultural production, even within the United States, and the part--the western part of the United States is actually rather dry, the Colorado basin. If, indeed, there's a drying because of more heat in that region it could actually exacerbate water shortages problems. So it's an issue that we do need to deal with. The fortunate thing is there are ways to reduce our energy--energy efficiency technology. There are ways to become more environmentally benign. And the good news is if we decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, we can also help in urban and regional air pollution that suffer, places like Denver and Los Angeles.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Andrews, just very briefly, how confident are you that the political system's ready to deal with some of that?
RICHARD ANDREWS: Well, I think the political system has been fairly adept at dealing with the immediate situations that we faced here in California over the last five-year period of time. I am somewhat skeptical of all these long-term forecasts of what may or may not--may not occur, but clearly there are a number of issues of how we manage the risks that we know we have, that we need to address at the local level, the state level, the federal level, and within the insurance industry.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you both. Mr. Andrews, Mr. Watson, thank you very much.
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