Cost of Climate Change


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So far in the Cost of Climate Change blog series, we’ve discussed how climate change is exacerbating the effects of different short-term and long-term events. This includes the rapid single-event devastation of glacial lake outburst floods and the ongoing of melting Arctic sea ice, respectively. Although timescales of these events differ, it does not change the significance of each impact and their associated costs.

I want to talk about another short-term weather event which occurred in August 2020, located in the Midwest of the United States. What happened here within a 14-hour timespan was the result of one of the costliest US thunderstorms called a derecho.

What is a Derecho and how do they form?

Defined by NOAA, a derecho (pronounced duh-reh-cho) is a widespread, long-lived windstorm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. These storms must move at a speed of 58 mph and travel at least 240 miles to hold the derecho classification. But what makes them so strong?

When warm air rises into the atmosphere, it cools and condenses into water droplets, forming clouds. These droplets cool and sink in the atmosphere with their density but then rise again when their temperature increases as they get closer to the earth’s surface. This produces convection within the system that generates the type of clouds that cultivate thunderstorms.

What causes the strong winds associated with derechos to develop is the intensification of the cold air droplets sinking in the atmosphere, which can lead to intense downdrafts as the convection within the storm cloud increases. These downdrafts not only create the intense hurricane-force winds we see at the earth’s surface, but also promote more warm air up to be sucked up into the atmosphere creating a positive feedback loop for the storm’s convection, ultimately strengthening it.

Eventually the storm does run out of power, but you can see how these storms are able to span for such long distances.

What are the costs associated?

The derecho that passed through the Midwest last August had windspeeds of up to 140 mph and travelled 770 miles. One of the hardest hit states was Iowa, where approximately half a million people were left without power and thousands filed for unemployment insurance; the cost of debris clean-up was $21.6 million USD and damages to public infrastructure added up to $23.6 million USD. In Cedar Rapids alone, 90% of buildings were left damaged and more than 1,000 homes were completely destroyed.

One very important consequence of the storm to discuss is the impact on Iowa’s agriculture. Roughly 10 million acres (43% of Iowa’s corn and soybean land) were impacted in some shape or form and 3.5 million acres of crop land (for reference, that’s about the size of 2.65 million American football fields) were damage or destroyed in the storm. On top of this, approximately 57 million bushels of grain storage were

Iowa produces 19% of the country’s soybean and 14% of the country’s corn. With the damages done, this not only impacts the state’s economy but also the nation’s economy and international trade (which I’ll dive into more detail in a future post).

All together, costs for the nation totalled $11 billion USD making it the costliest thunderstorm in modern US history.  

Farmer stands among damaged corn crop near Woodward, Iowa. AP photo.

Heartland Co-Op grain elevator damage. Daniel Acker/Getty Images

What can we do?

For events like these, there isn’t much individuals can do as derechos are quite unpredictable. However, we can prepare ourselves with the knowledge that as the effects of climate change persist, storms like these could become increasingly more frequent. Farmers at risk could be inclined to take out more comprehensible agricultural insurance in order to cover the financial blow if an event like this were to hit their farm, but there is only so much insurance can cover.

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Tune in for the next blog focused on another short-term event that many of us in the northern hemisphere will remember: The Beast from the East and Polar Vortices!

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