Lesser Extreme Cold Weather Events

Even without another ice age, we still need to be prepared for extreme weather events involving ice

An early sketch of the Gulf Stream by Ben Franklin. The Gulf Stream plays an important role in maintaining the balance that prevents a new Ice Age.

In his book Water in Buildings, Architect William Rose tells us that according to the insurance industry the greatest losses from freezing weather conditions don't occur in parts of the country that commonly freeze. "The claims come much more from the southern United States than from the northern states. Texas and Florida were highest on a per capita basis; Minnesota was the lowest. We can attribute this to the surprise factor — Minnesotans build such that freezing pipes are unlikely, whereas southerners may be caught by surprise by an unexpected cold wave. ... Insurance companies paid around $4.5 billion in the 10-year period 1985-1995 in claims for pipes bursting" (Rose). Frozen pipes, ice dams, heaving foundations and overloaded roofs are all rare conditions in the north where people are prepared for them, but become epidemic when very cold weather hits the southern parts of North America. Plumbing installed in southern states is rarely insulated and frequently has some point where it comes above ground such as water shut-off valves and entry points into the building. Furthermore it's common for buildings in the same general vicinity to be constructed similarly so when failures occur they tend to be repeated at the neighbors' homes as well.

Above is a photograph of Muir Glacier taken in August 1941 by William O. Field; below, a photograph taken from the same vantage in August 2004 by Bruce Molnia of the US Geologic Survey.

and snow. Although temperatures are warming at the planet's surface and in the troposphere, further research at Los Alamos National Laboratory has demonstrated the stratosphere has cooled substantially (Keller). This has resulted in an extreme difference between the temperatures of the near and outer atmospheres. This temperature difference is one of the forces driving more extreme weather events. It is clear that even with a warming of the climate, cold snaps are going to occur.

The greatest damage from unusual cold conditions occurs in areas that do not frequently experience unusual cold. A couple of years ago in Atlanta, Georgia, an unusual weather condition temporarily shut down the airport due to snow. The amount of snow that fell wouldn't have been a problem in Chicago where they are used to snow and are prepared to de-ice an airplane's wings, but since the condition was unusual for Atlanta they were unprepared to remain in operation until the weather changed. Many of Atlanta's residents were also unprepared to prevent their plumbing from freezing and bursting, so many homes ended up with water damage from the flooding that occurred.

Shifting climates will result in our homes being exposed to more frequent adverse conditions. Some types of extreme weather are only extreme if they are unusual. Death Valley, California, doesn't experience abnormal heat waves. It is typical, and therefore expected, for it to be miserably hot. Fortunately a little knowledge and some advanced preparation can help prevent serious damage. By acting quickly with first-aid measures when unexpected extreme weather events occur, the risk of extensive and expensive repairs can be reduced.

Part Two

The Effects of Changing Climate


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