Dry spell: Covering worsening droughts

In the news: A months-long drought has hit the northeastern United States, and while it’s not as dire as the West Coast’s five-year dry spell, it has stressed farms, prompted water restrictions and threatened more wildfires. It stretches from Maine to Pennsylvania and has hit Massachusetts particularly hard, as well as New Hampshire, Maine and New York.

Back story: U.S. drought has worsened in recent decades, and is affecting much of the country. As of early August drought is affecting 17.7 percent of the United States., and more than 100 million people. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, large portions of the Southwest have experienced the most persistent droughts on record in the last decade. Globally, since the 1950s, regions like southern Europe and West Africa have also experienced longer and more intense droughts.

Adaptation angle: Projections see worsening drought ahead, requiring government, businesses and individuals to adjust water consumption, and to prepare for impacts of drought on food and water supplies, human health, energy production, transportation, migration and a slew of other policy areas.

The United Nations expects more drought in the coming decades not just in southern Europe and the Mediterranean, but also in central Europe, central North America, northeast Brazil, southern Africa, Mexico and Central America. In the United States, Climate Central projects 36 states will see an increase in drought threat by 2050, with many states facing severe, widespread drought causing major economic and environmental impacts. By 2050, it says nine states — Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington — are projected to face a greater summer drought threat than the most at-risk state, Texas, does today.

Questions to ask

  • Is your community in a state or region that has experienced or is expected to see worsening drought? If so, what, if any, response plans are in place from policymakers?
  • What state and local agencies have authority over water usage?
  • Are water-use restrictions currently in place? Are they mandatory or voluntary? If mandatory, are they being enforced?
  • What kind of water efficiencies might be possible in your area, such as shorter pipe networks?
  • What kind of land-use policies, such as more compact communities, might improve drought resilience in your community?
  • What drought-resistant lawns or landscaping techniques can residents use?
  • What might be the infrastructure impact of drought in your area? Are soils shrinking, damaging pavements? Are buildings in your area experiencing drought-related foundation cracking? Is there damage to underground pipelines?
  • What is your area’s primary water supply and what is the impact of drought? Are reservoir levels dropping or streams drying up? Is drinking water quality being affected?
  • Could low river flows cause salt-water intrusion in your area? Or foster subsidence in soils as groundwater supplies are used up?
  • What kind of public health considerations does drought bring to your community, whether with food preparation, sanitation, recreation or water quality?
  • Is the balance of the water supply going to agriculture or populated areas? Should water resources be diverted from one to the other?
  • For agricultural areas, what are the impacts of drought, ranging from slower plant growth to crop losses?
  • Are agricultural firms or scientific organizations in your area researching drought-resistant crops?
  • Is drying vegetation elevating the risk of wildfire in your area? Is drought weakening forests and making them vulnerable to infestations?
  • What are the ecosystem impacts of drought in your area? Disease among wildlife? Loss of wetlands? Soil erosion or desertification?

Reporting resources

  • Review global prospects for drought and possible adaptations from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, or search among thousands of drought-related results from the U.N. Climate Change Newsroom.
  • Get U.S. drought data from the EPA’s Climate Change Indicators in the United States, which has a section on drought, including a close-up look at temperature and drought in the Southwest. Also see the EPA’s site on drought response for the nation’s water utilities.
  • Check the U.S. government’s Drought Portal weekly for a monitor showing where drought is hitting, plus get a seasonal outlook, drought impacts reporting, and a ZIP code interactive to see how drought is affecting your neighborhood. The site also has a planning and preparedness section with extensive links to drought response resources such as a “Planning and Drought” report from the American Planning Association.
  • Scan drought maps and outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as this NOAA-funded Drought Risk Atlas. NOAA also has a technical service that helps planners in the Eastern United States improve drought preparedness.
  • Detail U.S. drought risks using the 2014 National Climate Assessment, which includes discussion of drought in its section on extreme weather.
  • Read up on the economic and policy risks of U.S. drought via the Risky Business Project, which also has special reports that touch on drought in California, Texas and the Southeast United States, and the Midwest.
  • Explore drought policy plans via Georgetown Climate Center’s adaptation clearinghouse. Find dozens of results that can be filtered by relevance, date and rating by searching the database for “drought.” The Center has also prepared two drought case studies for Austin, Texas, and Beijing.
  • Review state-by-state preparedness plans for “drought” through the States at Risk Report Card. Montana, for example, earned an F because it faces one of the highest threats in the country and has one of the worst preparedness scores, whereas Oregon (A-) is one of the leaders in preparing for its drought risks.
  • Explore cities around the world focused on drought. There are a dozen-and-a-half in the 100 Resilient Cities program (use the Selected Cities database and search under “challenges” for drought).

Dig deeper on the drought story using the dozens of related resources in the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation database.

Know of other drought-related resources we should have in our database?

Posted by A. Adam Glenn on August 12, 2016


Harmed by heat: Covering the health risks of extreme weather

In the news
As public health officials began late last week to warn of the risks of extreme heat temperatures, posting heat advisories in 23 states, dangerous temperatures and humidity moved across the central United States, spreading eastward this past weekend into early this week.

Back story
Heat is a leading weather-related killer in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service. Some populations are more vulnerable to extreme heat, such as the elderly, the very young, the low income, and outdoor workers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extreme heat causes an average of 658 deaths a year, more than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and lightning combined. In addition, an Environmental Protection Agency report tallies more than 9,000 deaths since 1979 that listed heat as the underlying cause. However, that number may be severely over-reported because of the lack of standards over what constitutes a heat-related death.

Adaptation angle

  • Access to air conditioning is generally cited as the most immediate response to the threat of high heat, including providing cooling centers for those who can’t afford their own AC.
  • Long term, AC may contribute to the problem of rising temperatures, adding heat to the outdoor environment, as well as strain the power infrastructure and risk debilitating power outages.
  • Cities amplify heat wave risk through lack of shady vegetation, use of heat-soaking building materials and even the height and spacing of buildings.
  • Cities worsen the risk of heat-related illness during heat waves because they also tend to have higher temperatures at night, which is when the body normally cools off after hot daytime weather.
  • Programs such as cool or green roofs, greater greenery and cool pavements can reduce urban heat islands.

Questions to ask

  • Is your community especially vulnerable to heat waves because of its geography, size or other factors?
  • Are public health concerns greater because of the presence of at-risk populations?
  • How many cooling centers does your community have for those without AC?
  • Are programs in place to finance AC for the poor?
  • How effective is your community’s emergency warning and emergency response system in dealing with heat-related illnesses that arise with heat waves?
  • What kind of urban heat island challenges might your community face?
  • Are community leaders instituting cooling programs such as green roofs or urban forests?

Reporting resources

Plus, dig deeper on the heat wave and health story using annotated heat wave-related resources in the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation database.

Know of other health-related heat resources we should have in our database?

Posted by A. Adam Glenn on July 27, 2016


Hot zone: Covering the rise in heat waves

In the news: It was the hottest June on record for the lower 48 U.S. states -- 3.3 degrees above normal and a hair above a 1933 Dust Bowl-era record, reported National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week. In the wake of Southwestern heat waves in June, unusually hot weather hit the East Coast last week, and a massive heat wave is expected next week.

Back story: Climate change means the U.S. will face average annual temperature increases of 3°F to 10°F by the end of the century, according to the latest National Climate Assessment. But climate change is not just about the worrisome rise in average temperatures -- it’s also about extremes. Climate models predict that U.S. summertime temperatures that ranked among the hottest 5 percent between 1950 and 1979 will occur at least 70 percent of the time between 2035 and 2064. Of course, heat waves are not just a U.S. problem. Europe’s 2003 heat wave caused an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 premature deaths, and last week scientists reported climate change was behind that deadly weather.

Adaptation angles 

  • Potentially dangerous health impacts from extreme heat include increased levels of illness and death, especially for at-risk groups like the elderly, the chronically ill, young children and the poor. These impacts could be lessened by measures such as providing greater access to cooling centers.
  • Urban heat, worsened by built surfaces and scarce vegetation, can be reduced by cool roof programs or more greenery.
  • In rural areas, increases in average temperatures and heat waves will mean enhancing water management to cope with drier soils and researching drought-resistant plant varieties to reverse lower yields.
  • And impacts of extreme heat on natural ecosystems require a better understanding of challenges such as increased wildfire risk.

Questions to ask

  • Are more heat waves coming to your community due to global warming? What’s been the average? What was experienced during any historical heat waves?
  • What are the particular vulnerable populations in your community? Do you have more seniors, more outdoor workers, more people with cardiovascular disease?
  • What community programs are in place to help those who can’t afford to buy or run air-conditioning units? Does your community have cooling centers and how do residents find out about them? Are there assistance programs to help residents purchase air conditioners?
  • What measures are in place to reduce urban heat, such as plantings or structures to increase shade; or white roofs, rooftop gardens or green alleyways to reduce the use of asphalt and other surfaces that hold heat?
  • What kind of agricultural practices, such as water management or drought-resistant crops, are growers using to address heat waves? Explore ongoing research into those practices.
  • What do heat waves and drought mean for forested areas in your region? Could they mean greater likelihood of insect infestations that weaken trees and raise risk of more wildfires?

Reporting resources

Dig deeper on the heat wave story using annotated heat wave-related resources in the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation database.

Know of other heat wave-related resources we should have in our database?

Posted by A. Adam Glenn on July 15, 2016


Mayors Merge on Climate: Covering Adaptation in Cities

IN THE NEWS: The world’s mayors are forming a broad new alliance to fight climate change, and the effort is expected to be led day-to-day by billionaire climate activist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s Compact of Mayors and the European Union’s Covenant of Mayors will merge into a new Global Covenant of Mayors, representing 7,500 cities, with a signing ceremony June 22. It is expected to be up and running by early 2017.

BACKSTORY: Cities are considered key to successful climate adaptation. That’s not just because they produce the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions and house the majority of the world’s population, but also because they often find themselves at the front line of climate risks and are relatively nimble in their policy responses.

ADAPTATION ANGLE: Thousands of cities have embraced climate plans, pledging to cut carbon dioxide emissions and adopt resilience strategies. Yet many initiatives have failed, hampered by poor coordination within city government and between city, regional and national governments, communication challenges with stakeholders, lack of private sector partnerships and poor funding.

QUESTIONS TO ASK: Here are a few of the many questions to ask about your city’s climate planning:

  • What are the specific risks your city faces with regard to climate, such as extreme weather, sea-level rise, or threats to infrastructure and public health? Where are the most vulnerable areas of the city? Who are the most at-risk populations?
  • What programs has your city enacted, either for climate adaptation or carbon emission reductions? For instance, has it enacted plans for green infrastructure, like green roofs to reduce urban heat island effects, or has it cleared drains to reduce flooding, or built sea walls or restored wetlands to combat sea-level rise?
  • Has your city put in place any disaster preparedness programs?
  • How will your city fund any of its planned climate action (see our separate news backgrounder on covering public funding)?
  • Can your city’s climate adaptation and mitigation planning jump-start local economic development?
  • Are there any simple city-level operational changes that might help, such as through purchasing or transportation programs?
  • To what extent is sprawl and development a factor in climate decision-making for your city?
  • Does your community have centers of innovation to tap on climate issues? What local expertise is available to move adaptation plans forward, such as local universities, think tanks or businesses?
  • What are other cities and towns in your state or region doing about climate adaptation? Could they be a model for your community?
  • How well has your city worked with state, regional or federal governments to develop and enact its plans?
  • Has your city signed on with the climate goals of either the Compact of Mayors or the Covenant of Mayors?

REPORTING RESOURCES: Dig deeper on the city adaptation story using the dozens of related resources in the database of the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation, where you can start your search either by your region, or specific risks and responses.

Know of other resources we should have in our database? Share your resources here. And share your own stories, story angles and questions to ask.

Posted by A. Adam Glenn on June 20, 2016


Bay Area Adaptation Tax: Covering Public Resilience Funding in Your Community

IN THE NEWS: In an important first this week, San Francisco Bay Area voters approved a unique regional climate adaptation tax. Measure AA will impose a $12 annual property tax to raise $500 million over 20 years, the funds earmarked to prepare for sea-level rise by helping to restore thousands of acres of wetlands (more coverage).

BACKSTORY:  Public funding to protect against climate risk isn’t easy to come by. In the case of the Bay Area, for instance, area non-profit SPUR, which supported Measure AA, said regional agencies had years ago set a goal of restoring 100,000 acres of wetlands around the bay. But according to SPUR, the lack of funding meant only 15,000 acres have actually been restored, while the backlog is decades long for restoration of another 35,000 acres (more). In other areas of the country, like southern Florida, regional efforts to address sea-level rise have won little interest at the state level, where climate change risk is viewed as overblown (more).

ADAPTATION ANGLE: It’s not the first time communities have levied taxes for green restoration that could help with climate adaptation. In a Climate Central report on the Bay Area vote, the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association noted it is common for beach municipalities whose economies rely on tourism to levy hotel taxes to raise money for beach maintenance.  And Boulder, Colo., in 2007 became what was believed to be the first municipality to impose a carbon tax on residents (read a 2015 Q&A).


  • What adaptation initiatives in your community need public funding?
  • What tax approaches are currently in place in your community for other kinds of public services and initiatives? And how might an adaptation tax fit in with that regime?
  • Is a new tax even the best approach to adaptation funding? What other funding approaches are possible? Is private sector funding an alternative?
  • Could regional collaboration or funding help with adaptation planning and execution? Is funding available from upstream, like from state or federal governments? What public funding approaches might already have been tried (and perhaps failed)?
  • Should adaptation taxes differentiate between residential, commercial and industrial sectors? Wealthier or poorer residents? These equity issues were raised in the Bay Area case, for example, or are at play in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, where shrunken populations are asked to shoulder the rising cost of flood resilience measures.
  • How might the local economy, businesses, jobs and other revenue streams be affected if adaptation initiatives were not publicly funded in your community? Examples might be tourism dollars and hotel levies from local beaches (more) or other green amenities.
  • Even if funded locally, are adaptations compatible with adjacent communities? Or are there state regulations that might conflict with adaptation plans, or that require changes to infrastructure managed at the state level? How well aligned is your community in terms of working with different levels of governmental policymaking?

REPORTING RESOURCES: Dig deeper on the public funding story using the dozens of related resources in the database of the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation.

Posted by A. Adam Glenn on June 13, 2016


Adaptation Clearinghouse Database

Georgetown Climate Center

Overview: The nonpartisan Georgetown Climate Center is a branch of Georgetown Law and advocates for climate adaptation, clean energy, and transportation policies in the United States.

How to Use This Resource: The Adaptation Clearinghouse is a database of Georgetown Climate Center research, reports, maps and resources. It is searchable by policy area, organizations, topic and keyword.