9 out of 10 Pennsylvanians Live in Areas Hit by Recent Weather Disasters

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New Report Says Global Warming to Bring More Extreme Weather; Interactive Online Map Shows County-by-County Weather-Related Disaster History

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

Scranton, PA—After a year that saw many parts of hit by severe storms and record flooding, a new PennEnvironment report documents how global warming could lead to certain extreme weather events becoming even more common or more severe in the future. 

The report found that, already, more than 9 out of 10 Pennsylvanians live in counties affected by federally declared weather-related disasters since 2006. 2011’s Tropical Storm Lee, which caused the evacuation of more than 100,000 Pennsylvanians due to extreme flooding and millions of dollars in damage in the Susquehanna Valley, was one of the extreme weather events highlighted in the report.

“Millions of Pennsylvanians have lived through extreme weather causing extremely big problems for Pennsylvania’s economy and our public,” said Adam Garber, PennEnvironment Field Director. “Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, we need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now.” 

The new report, entitled In the Path of the Storm: Global Warming, Extreme Weather, and the Impacts of Weather-Related Disasters in the United States, examined county-level weather-related disaster declaration data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for 2006 through 2011 to determine how many Pennsylvanians live in counties hit by recent weather disasters. The complete county-level data can be viewed through an interactive map available here.

The report also details the latest science on the projected influence of global warming on heavy rain and snow; heat, drought and wildfires; and hurricanes and coastal storms.  Finally, the report explores how the damage from even non-extreme weather events could increase due to other impacts of global warming such as sea level rise.

Key findings from the PennEnvironment report include:

  • Since 2006, Luzerne County has experienced four federally declared weather-related disasters, and Lackawanna County has experienced two.  Recent weather-related disasters in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area included intense flooding from Tropical Storm Lee, which required the evacuation of more than 100,000 people along the Susquehanna River. The River crested at 42 feet, setting a record set by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. All told, the price tag for Tropical Storm Lee was hundreds of millions of dollars across the Commonwealth.
  • Since 2006, Dauphin County has experienced three federally declared weather-related disasters, and Cumberland County has experienced two.  Recent weather-related disasters in the Harrisburg area included intense flooding from Tropical Storm Lee, which required the evacuation of the Governor’s Mansion. The Swatara Creek crested at a record-level of nearly 27 feet in Hershey, and more than 100,000 Pennsylvanians had to be evacuated from encroaching flooding. All told, the price tag for Tropical Storm Lee was hundreds of millions of dollars across the Commonwealth.
  • Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Westmoreland, Fayette, and Greene Counties have all experienced one federally declared weather-related disaster since 2006; Armstrong and Indiana Counties have both experienced two. A 2010 blizzard, termed the “Snomageddon,” was officially declared a weather related disaster by FEMA on April 16, 2010 in all of these counties. Dumping almost two feet of snow on the region in two days, it was the 4th largest storm of its kind in Pittsburgh since such weather events have been recorded. The snow that blanketed the region left 130,000 local residents without power, closed schools, and had emergency services scrambling to provide waring centers and clear snow from the streets.
  • In 2011 alone, federally declared weather related disasters affected 9 out of 10 Pennsylvanians.  Nationally, the number of disasters inflicting more than $1 billion in damage (at least 14) set an all-time record last year, with total damages from those disasters costing at least $55 billion.
  • Nationally, federally declared weather-related disasters have affected counties housing 242 million people since 2006—or nearly four out of five Americans. 
  • Other research shows that the U.S. has experienced an increase in heavy precipitation events, with the rainiest 1 percent of all storms delivering 20 percent more rain on average at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. The trend towards extreme precipitation is projected to continue in a warming world, even though higher temperatures and drier summers will likely also increase the risk of drought in between the rainy periods and for certain parts of the country.
  • Records show that the U.S. has experienced an increase in the number of heat waves over the last half-century. Scientists project that the heat waves and unusually hot seasons will likely become more common in a warming world.
  • Other research predicts that hurricanes are expected to become even more intense and bring greater amounts of rainfall in a warming world, even though the number of hurricanes may remain the same or decrease. 

“Just like your doctor would recommend you cut out smoking or junk food to help prevent dangerous medical problems in your future, this report shows that scientists across the world are recommending that Pennsylvania and other states cut out greenhouse gas emissions to prevent unpredictable, destructive weather in our future,” said Pittsburgh City Councilmember Bill Peduto.  “The cost of shifting to low-carbon technologies is tiny compared to the cost of dealing with an increase in floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.”

Garber noted that global warming is expected to have varying impacts on different types of extreme weather events. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that it is “virtually certain” that hot days will become hotter and “likely” that extreme precipitation events will continue to increase worldwide, there is little scientific consensus about the impact of global warming on events such as tornadoes. In addition, every weather event is now a product of a climate system where global warming “loads the dice” for extreme weather, though in different ways for different types of extreme weather.

“Extreme weather is happening, it is causing very serious problems, and global warming increases the likelihood that we’ll see even more extreme weather in the future,” said Garber. “Carbon pollution from our power plants, cars and trucks is fueling global warming, and so tackling global warming demands that we cut emissions of carbon pollution from those sources.”

The report was released as the Obama administration is finalizing historic new carbon pollution and fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, and as the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to develop carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants—the largest single source of the carbon pollution that is fueling global warming. At the same time, some polluting industries and their allies in Congress are working to block these and other clean air standards.

“We applaud the Obama administration for the clean car standards they are finalizing, and urge EPA to move ahead with strong carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants,” said Garber.  “The extreme weather we suffered through in 2011 is a frightening reminder of why we must do everything we can to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that is fueling global warming, and lessen the threat of even worse extreme weather in the future.”