Climate experts air state’s preparations for changes in weather

  • Ambarish Karmalkar of the Northeast Climate Science Center and UMass department of geosciences speaks Wednesday, April 18, 2018, at a climate leadership summit at the university. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres is stunned by the devastation surrounding him as he tours the island of Barbuda in the eastern Caribbean a month after it was decimated by Hurricane Irma’s Category 5 winds and rains. MIAMI HERALD/TNS FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

AMHERST — When Hurricane Irma smashed into the British Virgin Islands on Sept. 6, winds blowing at more than 200-mph destroyed or damaged some 85 percent of the buildings on the island chain, wiping out critical infrastructure and even stripping trees of their bark.

“Despite the devastation that we have recently experienced, I am optimistic that we can win what I call the ‘climate Armageddon,’” Angela Burnett, a Virgin Islands-born climate change expert, told the Gazette Wednesday at the University of Massachusetts, where she was on a book tour for her collection of survivor stories from that hurricane, “The Irma Diaries.”

Burnett was one of the speakers at a climate leadership summit. Policy leaders, scientists and other experts at the event discussed the state’s preparation and mitigation efforts in the face of climate change, which scientists say will increase the likelihood of extreme weather events like Irma, Hurricane Harvey and other recent disasters.

“Our leadership on this issue, for other countries and other states, remains critical,” Katie Theoharides, the state’s assistant secretary of climate change, told the crowd gathered at the John W. Olver Design Building.

Because of a Supreme Judicial Court ruling in May 2016, the state must adhere to the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act and, by 2020, slash greenhouse-gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels. That decision is a significant driver of state action on climate change.

Theoharides was one of three presenters who discussed the state’s response to the effects of climate change, which are already being experienced.

In 2016, two years into his term and shortly after the SJC’s ruling, Gov. Charlie Baker signed Executive Order 569, which directs each executive office to name a climate change coordinator. The order sets in motion efforts at state agencies to help the state adapt to the likely disasters on the horizon — flooding, extreme weather, drought and wildfires, to name a few.

As part of the state’s efforts, Theoharides discussed a $1.4 billion environmental bond bill that Baker submitted to the Legislature in March, which would allow the state to issue bonds to pay for climate change preparedness.

Included in that money is $300 million for critical infrastructure and prevention, adaptation and mitigation efforts, $580 million for “deferred maintenance and recreational resource stewardship” and another $290 million for local-level investments.

“For obvious reasons, we’re very hopeful this will go through,” Theoharides said of the bill.

Local climate data

Theoharides said localized climate data provides the cornerstone for the state’s efforts, and to that end the state has partnered with the Department of Interior’s Northeast Climate Science Center and UMass, where the center is located.

The data, she said, are informing decision-making — specifically, in designing the integrated State Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan that is currently in progress. Theoharides said Massachusetts is the first in the nation to combine those plans.

At the local level, the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program is attempting to help municipalities build resiliency to climate change. So far, some 20 percent of the state has signed up for the program, Theoharides said.

Those local efforts will be essential, given what the data already show is in store for Massachusetts. That was the topic of a presentation from Ambarish Karmalkar of the Northeast Climate Science Center and UMass department of geosciences.

“The climate is indeed changing here in Massachusetts, and over the last 120 years temperatures have gone up by about 1.3 degrees Celsius. That’s 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit,” Karmalkar said, adding that that increase is higher than the global mean increase. “These numbers may seem small, but there are very serious impacts and consequences.”

New England, Karmalkar said, is an area that is experiencing faster warming than other areas of the United States.

Given the uncertainty about future emission levels, scientists have to use various emission scenarios to make their predictions using complex climate models. Whether the world continues on a high-emission course or drastically lowers greenhouse-gas emission, however, some consequences are pretty clear.

“One of the consequences of warming is that extreme heat events are going to be more common,” Karmalkar said. “The number of days with dangerous heat is predicted to increase substantially.”

So, too, are days with extreme precipitation events, like in 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene caused the Deerfield River to substantially flood its banks.

“The region is going to get wetter in the future, and we see that across the state,” Karmalkar said.

Sea level rise is obviously another issue facing the state, with thermal expansion, melting ice sheets and glaciers contributing to ever-increasing flooding on the coast.

Given those serious challenges, Jeff Hescock — interim executive director of the university’s environmental health and safety department — discussed how the state’s efforts can inform how UMass Amherst develops its own campus resiliency planning.

“It takes the entire campus to make this plan a success,” he said before breaking the audience out into “campus resiliency community visioning workshops” to explore what needs to be done on campus.

Burnett, the Virgin Islands climate expert, said it was encouraging to see the efforts underway in Massachusetts.

“I’ve been inspired just being here,” she said, adding that Massachusetts is a leader in its efforts. “But even as a leader, I appreciate that the bar is pretty low.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.