Winter storms put the US power grid to the test. It failed.
“Two-thirds of the US population faced snowstorms, high winds, or frigid winter weather over the Christmas holiday weekend, leading to at least 52 deaths and pushing the electricity grid to the brink of failure. And in many instances, it did. At its peak on Christmas, an estimated 1.7 million businesses and homes faced power outages.
It was the coldest Christmas in recent memory, and that meant a predictable surge in heating demand as temperatures dropped. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides power for 10 million people, for instance, said demand was running nearly 35 percent higher than on a typical winter day.
In many states, utilities and grid operators only narrowly averted greater disaster by asking customers to conserve their energy or prepare for rolling blackouts (when a utility voluntarily but temporarily shuts down electrical power to avoid the entire system shutting down). Some of the largest operators, including Tennessee Valley Authority and Duke Energy, used rolling blackouts throughout the weekend. Others, like National Grid, experienced some outages and asked some consumers to reduce gas usage. Texas also barely got through the emergency. On Friday, the US Department of Energy permitted the state to ignore environmental emissions standards to keep the power on.
One major transmission company that regulators thought would be well-prepared for the winter storm was caught off-guard: PJM Interconnection, which serves 65 million people in 13 eastern states, faced triple the power plant outages than it expected.
Officials probably could have met the higher demand if not for another predictable event that overwhelmed the system. Because of the extreme conditions, coal and gas plants and pipelines froze up too, taking them out of commission to deliver energy in areas that run mostly on gas.
The events over Christmas show how utilities and regulators continue to overestimate the reliability of fossil fuels to deliver power in a winter storm.”
“It wasn’t that the country didn’t have enough gas to go around to meet the high demand. There was plenty of gas, but the infrastructure proved vulnerable to the extreme weather. Enough wells and pipes were frozen or broken to bring the grid to its brink.”
The Arctic Is Becoming Wetter and Stormier, Scientists Warn
“Even though 2022 was only the Arctic’s sixth warmest year on record, researchers saw plenty of new signs this year of how the region is changing.
A September heat wave in Greenland, for instance, caused the most severe melting of the island’s ice sheet for that time of the year in over four decades of continuous satellite monitoring. In 2021, an August heat wave had caused it to rain at the ice sheet’s summit for the first time.”
“Warming at the top of the Earth raises sea levels worldwide, changes the way heat and water circulate in the oceans, and might even influence extreme weather events like heat waves and rainstorms, scientists say. But Arctic communities feel the impacts first.”
“Between October 2021 and September, air temperatures above Arctic lands were the sixth warmest since 1900, the report card said, noting that the seven warmest years have been the last seven. Rising temperatures have helped plants, shrubs and grasses grow in parts of the Arctic tundra, and 2022 saw levels of green vegetation that were the fourth highest since 2000”
The flooding in Pakistan is a climate catastrophe with political roots
“In April, cricket-star-turned-pseudo-populist Prime Minister Imran Khan sparked a constitutional crisis when he tried to stave off a vote of no-confidence by dissolving the Pakistani parliament. Eventually, the country’s supreme court ruled that he had acted unconstitutionally, the uproarious no-confidence vote proceeded, and he lost the prime ministership.
Since then, opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif became prime minister and has been presiding over a country hard hit by economic malaise — rising debt, a foreign currency shortage, and record inflation — deepened by the wide-ranging knock-on effects for energy and food insecurity presented by the Ukraine-Russia war.
All the while, the former prime minister has continued to hold political rallies that reinforce his street power. In turn, the government has launched a crackdown on Khan. Most recently, the police issued terrorism charges against him over a speech he delivered earlier this month. The next general election will be held in 2023, but Khan has been calling for early elections. Taken all together, it threatens to send Pakistan into an even more dangerous political phase.”
How are floods and droughts happening at the same time?
“The short answer for why these seemingly opposite things are happening at once is that climate change is making our atmosphere thirstier. Or, in more scientific terms, as the Earth warms, its atmosphere can hold more water vapor. This happens at an exponential rate: The back-of-the-napkin math is that the atmosphere can store about 7 percent more water per degree Celsius of warming, and we’re currently at about 1.2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. The result is an atmosphere that takes longer to get saturated with water, which means fewer rainstorms, but when they do occur, those storms dump more water at once, resulting in floods.
Paradoxically, our changing atmosphere is also a perfect recipe for drought. Higher temperatures mean water evaporates faster, and when it falls, it’s less likely to fall as the snow that has historically fed many of the American West’s rivers and streams. The rain isn’t very helpful either, since lifting a drought requires a combination of snowfall and long, sustained rainy seasons instead of short, extreme bursts.
“Water infrastructure in the West is built around snowpack,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University. “It doesn’t need to be stored in a reservoir if it’s being stored in the snowpack.” Reservoirs have limited capacity, Diffenbaugh pointed out, so if an extreme rainstorm filled a reservoir beyond capacity, that water — which otherwise might have fallen as snow, or over a longer period of time — would have to be released.
Instead, we see a vicious cycle: As the soil and vegetation in drought-prone regions dry up, they become prone to wildfires and less able to retain water, so when extreme rainstorms roll in, they trigger floods and erosion. The heat makes the water dry up before it has any particular impact on the drought, and the erosion makes the soil even less able to retain water, so the next flood becomes ever so slightly worse. We saw this kind of mid-drought flooding just a week before the floods in the Midwest, when monsoon rains swept through Flagstaff, Arizona.”
How the Western drought is pushing the power grid to the brink
“It takes a lot of water to make power.
From spinning turbines to hydraulic fracturing to refining fuel, the flow of water is critical to the flow of electrons and heat. About 40 percent of water withdrawals — water taken out of groundwater or surface sources — in the United States go toward energy production. The large majority of that share is used to cool power plants. In turn, it requires energy to extract, purify, transport, and deliver water.
So when temperatures rise and water levels drop, the energy sector gets squeezed hard. The consequences of water shortages are playing out now in swaths of the American West, where an expansive, decades-long drought is forcing drastic cuts in hydroelectric power generation. At the same time, exceptional heat has pushed energy demand to record highs. As the climate changes, these stresses will mount.
The United Nations Environment Programme warned..that if drought conditions persist, the two largest hydroelectric reservoirs in the US — Lake Mead and Lake Powell —could eventually reach “dead pool status,” where water levels fall too low to flow downstream. Lake Mead fuels the Hoover Dam, which has a power capacity topping 2,000 megawatts while Lake Powell drives generators that peak at 1,300 megawatts at the Glen Canyon Dam.”
We talk about heat waves in a weird way
“heat is the deadliest weather phenomenon in a typical year in the United States, killing an average of 148 people annually in the 30 years from 1992 to 2021, and climate change is only going to make heat waves more common. We already categorize tornadoes, and we name wildfires. Hurricanes get both. Would extending those ideas to heat waves help?”
The Colorado River drought is so bad you can see it from space
Severe heat and droughts are wreaking havoc across the globe
Why The Same Temperature Can Feel Different Somewhere Else
““I’m from Wisconsin, and I live in Tennessee,” said Alisa Hass, a professor of geography at Middle Tennessee State University. “Moving south is a huge shock to the body.” That’s because your body acclimatizes to the temperature range it’s used to — literally, your physiology changes. People accustomed to spending time outside in higher temperatures sweat more and have increased blood flow to the skin, two changes that can help the body offload excess heat. These are short-term effects and can go away if the person gets de-acclimatized, a process that helps explain why lower high temperatures in spring can produce the same levels of heat sickness as higher highs later in the summer, Sugg said.
But there’s long-term acclimatization, as well, with people used to living in hotter climates feeling more comfortable at higher temperatures — even if their health risks are actually larger. For example, in a comparison of outdoor workers in Mississippi and North Carolina, Sugg found that the Mississippi workers believed their jobs had lower heat risks but were also the ones experiencing more heat-strain events. Another study that compared the temperature and local perception of temperature across a bunch of European cities found that what people considered “neutral” in comfort corresponded pretty well with local temperature ranges and was, in fact, closer to the local maximum temperatures than the local mean.
There’s a whole host of studies showing that where you grew up and what you’re used to affects what temperatures you perceive as comfortable and safe. The reasons seem to range from physiological acclimatization to behavioral adaptations chosen based on the normal climate — like the fact that more than 80 percent of Tennessee households have central air conditioning, compared to 60 percent of Wisconsin households and less than 5 percent of homes in the U.K.”