As the second Arctic blast in two weeks began to cover the South with a blanket of ice and snow, more politicians were beginning to wonder what governments can't do to better protect citizens against unusual weather.
Yesterday morning at a Washington, D.C., hearing, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) indicated he might not believe in climate change. But that didn't stop him from supporting efforts to cool down the construction of coastal homes in a period when more of them are at risk from storms and rising sea levels.
Some might call that adaptation.
The conservative lawmaker, in this case, seemed to agree with a panel of experts who warned yesterday that more federal funding for disasters and to subsidize flood insurance programs could exacerbate the damage from heavier rainfalls and rising seas.
That happens when states and communities allow construction in risky areas, because they anticipate government help when a catastrophe strikes, according to several witnesses who testified yesterday on the growing threat of extreme weather.
For Johnson and others who are not concerned about the impacts of rising temperatures, it's smart to stop subsidizing development in floodplains, because damage is expected to rise even without climate change -- as more people cluster around shorelines and river valleys. It also saves money.
"I think you can pursue adaptation for all sorts of reasons," said Lindene Patton, chief climate product officer for Zurich Insurance Group, noting that the nation isn't ready for current catastrophes, let alone more serious ones projected for the future. "The current climate suggests that our assets are not sufficiently resilient. So you can have both perspectives" -- that climate change is real or not.
The hearing on extreme weather by the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee coincided with an unusual winter storm creeping north toward Washington from the South, where it coated a path from Alabama to New Jersey, clipping power lines, downing trees and snarling traffic along the way.
While the East Coast and Midwest have struggled with an Arctic cold spell, California is withering under an off-season drought. President Obama is planning to travel to Fresno, Calif., tomorrow to rally federal help for the parched state.
'Catastrophic ... crippling ... paralyzing'
Then there is the rest of the world, which is mostly warmer than North America, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For example, temperatures at the Winter Olympics are above normal, with Sochi, Russia, reaching 61 degrees Monday, about 10 degrees above average. NOAA said recently that Russia hadn't experienced such warmth in November and December since records began 114 years ago. The temperature was 8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average in December.
The collage of weird weather prompted the Natural Resources Defense Council to say yesterday in press release, "In a nutshell, this is what climate change looks like."
Scientists tend to be more circumspect. A single day of weather, or even a year of it, isn't a good measurement of climate change, whose trends are best shown over 30 years or more. But they do say confidently that things like heat waves, rising seas and heavier downpours are already being affected by warmer temperatures.
The wet winter storm sweeping across the Southeast yesterday brought fears of power outages and downed trees, if not predictions of climate catastrophe.
"We could see definitely significant if not historic amounts of freezing rain," said Frank Pereira, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Md.
In Atlanta, which recently suffered a near total shutdown after getting 2 inches of snow, the language used by National Weather Service forecasters was dire.
"This-is-an-event-of-historical-proportions!! Catastrophic ... crippling ... paralyzing ... choose your adjective. This is a very big deal especially from metro Atlanta east along the I-20 corridor. ... In case it hasn't been made clear already ... these are catastrophic and crippling totals which could result in widespread power outages that may last for days."
Nasty, but maybe not climate change
The storm had the potential to be so severe that the U.S. Air Force took the unusual measure of sending a Hurricane Hunter plane into the storm in advance, dropping instruments to get real-time data readings that would help improve the weather forecast. Hurricane Hunters usually only fly into hurricanes or severe winter storms on the West Coast.
The data they collected were fed into National Weather Service computer models in an effort to improve the storm forecast, said Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman with service.
"We are trying to get the best possible handle on this storm," Vaccaro said.
The winter storm was expected to move up the Eastern Seaboard through Friday, dropping significant snow in the interiors of states like Virginia and along the Blue Ridge Mountains. According to the National Weather Service, 11 inches had fallen on Washington, D.C., by 5:46 a.m. today.
While it is not unusual for the Southeast to receive snowfall, ice accumulation amounting to greater than a half-inch or three-quarters of an inch would be unusual, said Charles Konrad, director of NOAA's Southeast Regional Climate Center and a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
"This might be the kind of ice storm in a lot of places that you might get once every 50 years," Konrad said.
Konrad also pointed out that while the cold start to 2014 might leave folks in the eastern United States wondering about climate change, the fact that the Earth is warming does not mean that there will no longer be cold winters or snowstorms.
"In the context of the atmosphere, there is a lot of natural variability that is going on there. Even though the climate is warming, you are going to have very warm periods and you are going to have cold periods," he said.
As to whether winter storms can be related to climate change, that's a question science is not ready to answer. Climate models continue to struggle with predicting the impacts of climate change on precipitation, particularly at a regional or local scale, Konrad pointed out.
"We are not really at the point where it comes to precipitation that we can make projections with confidence," he said.
Common ground on weather, not climate
But you don't need to be certain about climate change before trying to save taxpayers money, several witnesses said at the Senate hearing yesterday. Insurers say that disasters losses have been climbing for 30 years, as more people cluster around shorelines.
Collin O'Mara, Delaware's secretary of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said that federal disaster aid can discourage states from protecting themselves from storms. His state has invested in coastal defenses, bolstered building codes and required agencies to account for rising seas. As a result, it experiences less damage -- and gets less federal aid than a state that didn't do those things.
This amounts to "a large subsidy for less responsible communities," he told the committee.
"We need to stop rewarding communities for being ill-prepared. Right now, [Delaware] doesn't see the money after a disaster because our systems work," O'Mara added. "It's just completely crazy."
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee's chairman, said he held the hearing to find common ground around the cost of being unprepared for catastrophes, whatever their cause.
He said that extreme weather like Superstorm Sandy "appears to be the new norm," and it's costing the government "a boatload of money."
Sen. Johnson, of Wisconsin, didn't mention climate change. But he seemed to agree with the witnesses who urged Congress to rectify federal programs that encourage people to live and build in dangerous places. Among those is the National Flood Insurance Program.
"We need to raise the price for individuals that are building in very risky environments. Correct?" Johnson said to the witnesses. "We don't want to continue to incentivize people to build in areas that are going to flood every year or get wiped out every 10 years."