by Joylette Portlock
I had the chance to visit Powdermill Nature Reserve over the weekend. Yes, this past weekend, the one where it rained for three days almost continuously across a multi-state area. I took my kids with me, and we had a blast; after all, “rain is a grown-up problem.”* I have to say, the woods always feel so alive to me during/right after a hard rain. The world feels full of promise and power. As we watched Powdermill Run, swollen and wild, churning, cutting a new path through the woods after floods this summer, I thought of the power of water, to nourish, to sweep clean, and to cause damage.
And, because being a grownup requires other grownup thoughts, I thought of the water in my basement, and considered, again, the costly prospect of installing a French drain around the house.
If you’re feeling like there seems to be more water than ever before, you’re not wrong. Climate change, one of the most significant challenges of the Anthropocene, is shifting the way water moves around the planet. It is resulting in more precipitation in places and at times where we don’t need it; a global phenomenon that is felt locally.
KDKA reported that this past Sunday in Pittsburgh was the second wettest day ever recorded in the area and we’ve already passed the yearly average rainfall. In other words, every drop from this point out in 2018 puts us closer to an annual “wettest ever” status, too.
Our downpour this weekend is part of a trend. Since the 1950s, the amount of water falling during heavy downpours in this part of the U.S. has increased by 71%, per the 2014 National Climate Assessment, and that’s an increase that is definitely more than the natural variation:
This may come as a surprise – we usually talk about global warming in terms of heat waves and hurricanes – but climate scientists have known about these precipitation effects, which have a big impact even in non-coastal areas, for some time. It’s a big deal for flooding risk (and in areas like Pittsburgh, with a combined sewer-stormwater system, for water quality).
In other words, it’s not just my basement at risk.
However, the forecast doesn’t have to be gloomy. Also from the National Climate Assessment: our actions right now make a difference, globally and locally. These maps show the projected difference in annual springtime precipitation, by 2090, if we take steps to dramatically reduce our impact on our climate now vs. if we don’t:
Grown-up problems, indeed. Playing in the rain can be very fun. And the world is full of promise and power. But perhaps Powdermill Run isn’t the only thing that requires a new path forward.
*Said to me by a summer camp counselor at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium in 2017 when I dropped my son off for camp on a rainy day.
Joylette Portlock, Ph.D., is associate director of science and research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. She is also executive director of Communitopia, a nonprofit focused on climate change communication, and holds many other roles in the community. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
From the National Climate Assessment website:
The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.
A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.