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August 3, 2023

Climate change has hit CT hard this year. Are we ready for more?

CT DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE Torrential rains in early July caused the Connecticut River to flood into Killam and Bassette Farmstead in South Glaastonbury. The farm flooded again in another round of rain a week later.

On July 17, the very same day a host of Connecticut officials and farmers stood alongside the mud and deep water inundating farms along the Connecticut River and lamented the second flood in a week, Willie Dellacamera surveyed his 120-acre farm in the Northford section of North Branford.

Yeah, there was mud in a few spots from the torrential rain the day before, along with a couple of zucchinis that hadn’t been picked in time. But the basil, tomatoes and cucumbers were tall and dry, thanks to what Dellacamera called the climate change “armorization” he did before the last summer of floods two years ago.

If he hadn’t, “It would be a mess,” he said. Dellacamera learned his climate-change lesson and has shown that planning for it can work.

But much of Connecticut has been learning the hard way.

Last year it was drought; the year before was drought followed by floods. This year so far has seen everything.

Even ignoring the slower grind of rising temperatures, sea levels and other climate change-related problems world-wide, just since the beginning of 2023 in Connecticut, weather extremes have reached from one end of the spectrum to the other.  

Winter was largely warm and dry with an official drought by mid-April that persisted right up until the recent rains. It even included red flag warnings for wildfires in early spring and a summer-style heat wave in part of the state, also in mid-April.

But short freezes — one in February and another improbably on May 18 — did tremendous damage to crops that had made early appearances due to the unseasonable heat only a month earlier. Fruit trees — especially peaches, which can’t be re-planted — were especially hard-hit.

Drought conditions persisted right up to the first torrential rain storm in the region July 5.

After that, cool weather was followed by sudden heat, more drought, catastrophic rains twice, one week apart in July, and wildfire smoke from Canada. Throw into the mix the three hottest days on the planet in early July along with hottest ever month in June — topped a month later by July and possibly again in August — unprecedented warm ocean temperatures in the Atlantic and Pacific, an Atlantic hurricane prediction updated to be above-average, and increasing certainty that the already existing El Nino will have an impact on the Northeast this winter.

Which probably means we haven’t seen the end of the extreme weather occurrences for this year. Or maybe we have.

The day before an unusual spring freeze, Connecticut faced persistent drought and red flag warnings that there was a wildfire risk in the area.

Planning for future effects of this sort of climate change-driven weather these days certainly requires physics and meteorology but also probably a crystal ball. Even climate scientists can’t always predict how the many climate change-induced conditions will compound on each other.

“That’s partly because they do not necessarily add linearly, as we say, sort of in a mathematical term. You can’t just take one effect and add it to the other effect and the impacts that those two have in isolation will then be the sum of the outcome,” said Flavio Lehner, an atmospheric and climate science professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science at Cornell University. “The physics involved in the non-linearity is a bit harder to pin down.”

He points out, as do others, that most of the weather patterns we’re seeing would be happening without climate change. But climate change is driving their intensity, frequency and other abnormalities.

“The historical record, like the observations we have, it allows us to tease out what we should expect on average, which just doesn’t mean in any given year it’s going to be exactly like you think,” Lehner said, noting that there’s always a bit of chaos to the weather/climate dynamic.

Everyone feels it

It’s not just a problem for farmers like Dellacamera. The climate change-related weather impacts in the state are being felt across many aspects of daily life, the jurisdictions of many departments, and with greater extremes than ever.

But with so much uncertainty, how does the state prepare and, more to the point, minimize or even prevent the impacts?

It will probably take coordination, creativity and cold, hard cash.

Some of that is now Joanna Wozniak-Brown’s job. She’s Connecticut’s new climate and infrastructure policy development coordinator at the Office of Policy and Management, a position created less than a year ago.

Wozniak-Brown, who came from the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation, noted “the enormity of the challenge and the unpredictable and as yet unknowable cascade of impacts that are going to happen.”

She said the primary impacts of extreme heat, the changing timing of weather systems, the amount of precipitation and intensity of storms are well-known.

“Then you add on the secondary impacts of the changing invasive species and vector-borne diseases and drought — the things like that that are going to be much more difficult to solve — and they will be intractable, because we’re not going to be able to solve them,” she said. “What we have to do is expand our ability to respond and prepare for these types of things.”

In Connecticut, the issue is way more serious than the loss of a peach crop, as devastating as that might be to growers. Such events also have serious, and at times deadly, impacts on health, infrastructure, public safety and more — each in many ways.

Connecticut department commissioners uniformly say they are collaborative and have each other’s back when emergencies arise, and they point to the recommendations of the Governor’s Council on Climate Change in 2021 as offering something of a blueprint on how to proceed. But the group hasn’t met since then, though plans are in the works to re-launch it. The state’s plan, which tends to be reactive with emergency response and money to clean up messes like flooding, may need to shift more toward preventing problems in the first place.

Wozniak-Brown has begun discussions with the commissioners of those departments and others for long-term solutions and for emergency response.

“I have developed a draft list of policy options to discuss with our OPM leadership and the governor’s office to see what we can make sure are the guiding principles across all of our agencies so that not only all of our agencies are engaged on this mind-boggling topic, but also so that they know where to start,” she said.

Health takes more hits

The list of health impacts from climate change-induced conditions is long and getting longer. Heat and the resulting air quality problems from it are well known for causing and worsening respiratory difficulties and all kinds of other health conditions. This year’s added attraction of Canadian wildfire smoke worsened both.

“With the Air Quality Index alerts with the Canadian wildfires that happened, what we saw is that there were definitely more children with asthma exacerbations showing up in emergency departments over the course of that week,” said Manisha Juthani, commissioner of the Department of Public Health.

Insects — especially mosquitoes and ticks, which Juthani said are evident year-round now — bring in new diseases better able to survive in the changed climate. Water — drinking and recreational — harbors more illness-causing bacterial and other contamination from the heat itself as well as from secondary impacts from events such as wildfires and floods. Contamination can run from mud to E. coli to toxins in runoff from the kind of intense storms here in July. Indeed, the state has closed all but a few shoreline and inland beaches this summer, a number of them multiple times and one eight times by mid-July. Local beaches have also faced frequent closures by towns and health districts, especially after storms.

Even shark attacks are considered climate-driven, as animals move closer to land in search of food sources that have also moved due to climate change-related stressors.

Juthani said there is coordination with emergency response and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to assess conditions and respond when events occur.

“We’re not in the business of preventing what’s happening with climate,” Juthani said. “We are in the business of trying to help people figure out what they do when these events occur.”

In other words, state agencies are reactive.

“Every time we think we’re planning for what we know is coming or think is coming, you get something that is unpredictable; unprecedented. When the entire city of Burlington is under water in Vermont, and then that water is coming downstream for days and slow-flooding areas in Connecticut, how can you predict that?” she said. “It’s a bit of an existential question, because it is very difficult to plan for the unpredictable.”

But there are preventive measures that can scoop up a whole bunch of issues at once. Perhaps the biggest would be to provide air conditioning, preferably in the form of energy efficient heat pumps, to those who need them most and can’t afford them — namely low income and environmental justice communities.

Air conditioning and filtration can forestall, if not eliminate, the need for cooling centers, which people really don’t use much anyway. They help keep people out of harm’s way from poor air quality conditions such as unexpected wildfire smoke with its dangerous fine particulates or old fashioned summertime smog. It can keep mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects out of homes and help keep people from going out into unhealthy conditions in search of relief from oppressive conditions inside.

“I think the reality is we have to do both” — be proactive and reactive, Juthani said.

That means telling folks to use mosquito repellent but perhaps also upgrading infrastructure such as drainage before a crisis like flooding that, in addition to the obvious damage, breeds mosquitoes and other insects that carry disease.

Inadequate drainage due to old pipes that are too narrow is a longstanding, well-known and mostly unaddressed problem in Connecticut.

Infrastructure, safety and rapid-response

Richard Byrne, the emergency services director in Norfolk, who has lived in the town all his life, remembers the 1955 flood and the four dams built afterward to deal with water in the Housatonic River. But the intense rain and flooding from the first of the two July storms instead sent water into the Naugatuck River, which didn’t have flood protection.

That meant there was a lot of water in Norfolk.

“We got 11 inches of rain — well, 11 to 14, depending on the reports — but in a very short amount of time. That is something that I haven’t seen before,” he said.

Snow, Norfolk can deal with, given that it gets more of it, being at a higher elevation and farther north. Flooding is something else.

“Most of these culverts that we’re talking about that just got washed out, they were put in after the ’55 flood,” he said. “It’s old, outdated stuff. So now we have to re-engineer it and rethink it.”

The problem with replacing them, though, is there’s no clear state mandate for anything other than state-owned culverts. And even what’s mandated are old federal standards that don’t take climate change-related projections into account. New standards that do are at least three years away. Even so, the state recently awarded a number of resiliency planning and project grants, several of which are geared towards handling flooding and runoff.

“When you see the same house is flooding time and time again, people just rebuild and it happens again. To me it’s like, how do we break that cycle?” said Bill Turner, the state’s emergency management director, who came to Connecticut about a year ago.

“If there’s an opportunity where we can mitigate or reduce or even eliminate the risks, then we should, really, in my opinion, be dedicating our resources to doing so. But it really comes down to funding, and that’s not always available or feasible.”

The state does maintain a hazard identification risk assessment that looks at everything that could happen. But Turner admits they were caught flat-footed with the wildfire smoke from Canada.

He did add a meteorologist to his full-time staff earlier this year. But he said Connecticut doesn’t have the kind of state-level disaster fund other states have to meet costs the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t cover.

“I feel like we’re almost kind of behind the curve,” he said. “We have a lot of catching up to do. There’s a lot of work that we would need to do to make our communities more resilient, and we can’t do it all overnight.”

But what really keeps him up at night: how fragile the electric grid is. He has good reason to worry. There have been at least two small issues this summer, both during the worst of the wildfire smoke.

The grid operator, ISO-New England, discovered that the smoke was “significantly lowering production from solar resources in the region compared to what ISO-New England would expect absent the smoke,” the ISO published online. The smoke cover acted almost as clouds would, lowering the ambient temperature and thereby lowering the need for air conditioning. But the ISO said the situation made determining electricity demand difficult, given that their modeling was based on historical data, which hadn’t considered the impact of something like wildfire smoke.

On July 5, the heat and smoke from the fires also triggered an automatic shutdown of one of Hydro-Quebec’s transmission lines into New England. In a statement, the ISO said that, coupled with higher consumer demand, “this combination left the region short of the resources required to meet consumer demand and required operating reserves.” Prices spiked to more than 50 times normal for a short period of time.

“While forest fires are not a new phenomenon, the intensity and increased frequency of these events in North America are the result of climate change,” said a statement from Lynn St-Laurent, senior advisor and spokesperson, Hydro-Québec External Relations.

“The amplitude of this event should serve as a clear reminder that we need to accelerate every effort towards transitioning away from the burning of fossils fuels for electricity generation.”

Foot-dragging on the transition to carbon-free energy is only one of the items that concerns DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes. She points squarely at the legislature and the many pieces of climate change legislation it ignored this past session when it comes to explaining why the state continues to focus on climate emergency management rather than the dozens of prevention recommendations by the GC3.

“Agencies across the administration are responding to these both near term emergency events and developing programs for the future, but we’re doing that without really any new tools to speak of from the state legislature,” she said. “So we’re going back to the same pots of money to try to figure out what we can stretch and how we can try to adapt the tools and authorizations that we have to the unfolding emergencies and challenges that we’re experiencing.”

The state is actively going for funding from the many pools of federal money the Biden administration has made available to address climate change, but there’s no guarantee of winning it.

She also points to the efficacy of flood control projects such as the one undertaken by Meriden. It addressed serious repetitive flooding by un-burying a brook, enlarging culverts and turning a brownfield into a park that doubles as a retention pond for future floods. It worked.

Similar work is being done in the Housatonic Valley tri-state region, and there are examples in neighboring states of broad-based flood control projects that use nature-based solutions such as wetland management.

As first selectman of Cornwall, Gordon Ridgway could see real-time the effects of the first July floods on his town. Dirt roads washed out, blocked with debris. Culverts were damaged. A rail freight line installed in mid 1800s was lifted into the air by the water.

“That thing had withstood the ’38 hurricane, the ’55 hurricane, and it blew out this year on an unnamed storm,” he said. “We’ve been talking to the railroad about increasing some of our pipe sizes, but it’s hard to prepare for the unprecedented.”

Ridgway is also a farmer and all too familiar with the drought-flood cycle Connecticut has been in.

“All this stuff that’s playing out all over the world is playing out here,” he said. “We’re getting repeatedly whacked no matter what the season is.”

On his own farm, he wound up putting in more drainage and irrigation at the same time. But it was the May freeze that did him in the first time, taking all his peaches and some strawberries. And in the first July flood, he even lost some plants in greenhouses when the water managed to get underneath and the ground was too saturated to handle it.

“It’s hard to prepare for drought and flooding at the same time,” he said. “Plus smoke. How do you prepare for smoke?”

Farms on the edge

State Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt points out that this is the fourth year in a row that the state has requested a federal disaster declaration for Connecticut farmers. This year they’ve done it twice. So far.

The first one was for the February and May freezes, which affected 1077 acres causing losses of about $8.4 million. It was approved. The second, just filed, for the two July floods, affected more than 1,500 acres on 27 farms and caused losses of about $21 million, with farms on the Connecticut and Farmington Rivers catching some of the worst of it. Both areas have flooded repeatedly for years, though most often in spring from runoff, not in the height of summer.

Overall, the state has 5,521 farms covering more than 380,000 acres.

“We can’t manage an event like this,” Hurlburt said after the first flood. “Twenty-one feet of water coming through the Connecticut rivers — that’s a catastrophic event. That’s a real challenge. What can we do to manage water before it gets to the river? What can we do to manage those drought spells? Is there infrastructure that we can help put on the farm to manage those late frost-freeze events?

“We need to be as creative as possible to confront this and use our platforms to share out the information to help prepare farmers to get ready for it.”

To that end, Hurlburt is also planning to establish a working group to explore resilience and other strategies. If the department’s so-called climate-smart grants awarded in March are any indication, clearly there is an appetite for answers. The department received $56 million in applications for the $7 million it had available.

“These are devastating events, and there is probably not much farmers from their individual level can do to even minimize the losses,” said Shuresh Ghimire, an educator with the University of Connecticut extension service who specializes in vegetables.

He rattled off a long list of what he’s seen on farms since winter — including some farms that have lost 100% of certain crops. While excessive rains sometimes knock out insects like beetles, aphids and mites, all that water can lead to any number of diseases if it doesn’t drain quickly, and Ghimire is already seeing several of them. If river water touches a crop, the state doesn’t allow it to be harvested due to potential contamination.

Excessive heat can kill certain crops quickly, and milk cows produce less in hot weather. The smoky conditions from the Canadian wildfires also produced a number of impacts farmers may never have experienced before.

“All the native pollinators — they don’t go out when there is smoke. They are smart enough to hide it in their nest or hives,” Ghimire said. “Pollination didn’t happen, and the blossom dropped.”

So nothing grew, which just compounded the existing problem from heat, which also slows down pollination. The high ozone levels can also damage crops. Due to extreme smoke, workers couldn’t get out in fields for a week or more to manage weeds or any other issue.

But that’s not the end of the story, Ghimire said. “There are so many other things in general farmers can do to combat the consequences of these extreme weather events.”

And a lot of them are pretty easy, like adding organic material to soil. Every 1% increase in organic matter will increase the water-holding capacity of the soil by a half-inch of rain, Ghimire said. So if your soil has 6% organic matter, if it’s not saturated, it can hold three inches of excess water.

No-till farming techniques, in which the soil is not constantly turned over, help preserve organic matter and are especially useful in drought conditions. He recommends diversifying crops so if one doesn’t survive, another might. He suggests staggering plantings, growing more short-season and disease-resistant varieties. And planting farther away from the riverbank. He suggests planting cover crops between rows so if there is flooding, cover crops with long roots can help absorb the water.

Dellacamera, the Northford farmer, follows many of these principles on his Cecarellis Harrison Hill Farm — growing red clover, rye, oats and weeds between rows. It works, although because the distance between crop rows is wider, there are fewer plants. But, of course, he actually has plants that survive to harvest.

This year he tried another new, simple tactic. He staked his cucumbers to keep them off wet ground. That worked too. He’s also planning some new drainage on his dirt roads to keep water from washing down them into fields. And he planted late, despite the warm winter. “I planted my corn later than all my neighbors,” he said. “Maybe they were laughing at me for not planting stuff. But you know what? I would rather go two more weeks in the end in the fall than have to risk losing everything two weeks early in the spring.”

He even ran a workshop for farmers showing them how to do what he does. He’d like to see the state provide some incentives like tax breaks as payback for the improvements he’s made on his own dime.

“I think we’re still trying to figure out what the tools that we would need are, and I think a lot of people across the nation are asking the same questions and trying to figure it out themselves,” Hurlburt said. “We’re all in this new territory where the book of answers doesn’t exist for this set of problems.”

The year’s only half over

The forecast for Connecticut for the rest of the year is not good. At the beginning of July, the noted Colorado State University hurricane research team upped the Atlantic hurricane prediction to “above average” with 18 named storms, nine hurricanes and four major hurricanes. The reason already features epically warm sea-surface temperatures that could fuel storms.

Data show the daily average sea surface temperature in the mid-latitudes this year is higher than at any time going back to the 1970s.

And that’s in spite of El Nino conditions. Not because of it; in spite of it. El Niño emanates from the tropical Pacific, and its impacts vary. On the east coast, the vertical wind shear from El Niño generally rips hurricanes apart, and few survive. But the water is now so warm, it may counteract the El Niño conditions.

The biggest effects will likely be this winter, with warm and stormy conditions. Maybe.

So what should Connecticut prepare for? Drought?  Floods? Both? Both in the same week like this summer?

“The answer unfortunately is that we do have to prepare for both, because floods and droughts are both extremes of the water cycle,” said Anthony Broccoli, director of the Rutgers University Climate Institute and an atmospheric scientist who researches weather and climate. “That cycle moves faster in a warmer world.”

In a warmer world, which we have right now to the highest degree in recorded history, there’s more evaporation. Warm air also can hold more water vapor. As a result, there’s more precipitation that falls more heavily. A recent study done at Dartmouth predicts that events of “at least 1.5 inches of heavy rainfall or melted snowfall in a day are projected to increase in the Northeast by 52% by the end of the century.”

But Broccoli said: “When you have a circulation pattern that produces prolonged dry periods, more rapid evaporation is going to mean that the soil dries out more quickly. So the heavy rains and the droughts can both be consequences of a more active water cycle.”

Flash droughts are what they’re sometimes called.

Sea level rise, which also is a product of climate change and the Arctic melting it produces, also factors in. Broccoli said if sea level is 3 feet higher by the end of this century, events like Hurricane Sandy, which was considered unusual at the time, might happen every few years. “Not because the weather has changed,” he said. “Even without changes in the weather, a higher sea level raises the baseline for coastal flooding.”

For public preparations and policy, it’s a wet, dry, hot and cold minefield. “The challenge for public servants is that we have to adapt our old playbooks for responding to more typical kinds of emergencies that we’re used to under our old climate, to more frequent and novel impacts that we’re experiencing today and going forward,” said Dykes, whose department generally fields the bulk of these issues.

She said more tools, resources and staffing are needed to respond to the kind of emergencies we’ve just experienced and we may face in the immediate future, according to forecasts. And they’re needed to accelerate resilience and mitigation strategies, because in the end, the way to respond to climate change is to eliminate the fossil fuels causing it.

What keeps her up at night: “Just trying to move fast enough.

“The new reality is that as climate change is accelerating, we have to carve out additional bandwidth to be able to also manage and respond to these emergencies that are becoming perpetual. We’re also going to be in a perpetual emergency-like response mode for incidents that are occurring that are unfamiliar,” she said. “We’ve identified what these possible risks are, but no one has a crystal ball to know when they’re going to occur and how they’re going to compound.”

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