Michigan dam break shows how climate change strains infrastructure
Heavy rainfall events are increasing in the north central and northeastern U.S. Many dams, homes, and streets across the country aren't ready.
MIDLAND, MI. – Consider it the proverbial “double whammy” – a climate change-induced disaster during a pandemic.
That’s what happened on May 19 about 140 miles north of Detroit, when the 96-year-old Edenville Dam on Wixom Lake broke, draining the lake and flooding torrents into nearby Midland amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The combination of more frequent and more severe extreme events with aging infrastructure vulnerable to damages from climate change amounts to that “double whammy” … and leads to double jeopardy.
“You take, say, a 150-year event, and it suddenly becomes a 50-year event, and that’s sort of what’s happening in many places,” says MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel in this month’s “This is Not Cool” original video by Midland resident Peter Sinclair.
Scientist Jennifer Francis of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution points to the atmosphere’s now holding 7% more moisture than it did just five decades ago. That water vapor, or moisture, one result of a warming climate, amounts to latent energy, she says. “So when it does rain, it rains harder.” She points to a “big uptick” in heavy precipitation events in the eastern half of the U.S. “very directly related to climate change.”
Combined with the impacts of clearing away more natural vegetation for development – and often replacing it with impervious surfaces such as streets or parking lots – the impacts mount as heavy precipitation events occur more frequently.
Texas A&M scientist Andrew Dessler points to an example of an exquisite 5,000-square foot Houston area home listed for sale at a bargain rate. One catch: the line in the description saying the house has “flooded twice” in recent years. And saying the home is “a great candidate to lift” — as in tear down or raze.
“Nobody wants to buy a house that’s going to flood,” Dessler says. He sees it as a case of “stranded assets” and points to “the millions of little decisions, affecting our lives in different ways, each one making us a little poorer than we would otherwise be.” He points to examples such as having to raise a home’s foundation to help insulate it from sea-level rise, having to run air conditioning units more, and having to lay out more hard-earned money for flooding infrastructure.
“We have a lot of things that we’ve built that may be vulnerable to gradual change that’s pushing them over a threshold and causing an abrupt issue for us,” Penn State scientist Richard Alley says of events like the Michigan dam breaks.
“The first degree of warming doesn’t cost very much,” Alley says, but the next increased degree costs “a little more” … and the next one after that again “a little more.” And on and on.