Grid blackouts are increasing in the United States as extreme heat ramps up. New study with Dr. Brian Stone Jr. – why a blackout during a heatwave could led to mass deaths. Temperatures inside homes become deadly without air-conditioning and “cooling centers” have no backup. Expert Dr. Ray Klump adds new wrinkles – system breakdowns, terror attack, or Ransomware in extreme heat – climate warfare?
My thanks to ClimateCentral for the theme graphic for this program. It’s a great science news service.
[Ticking clock] Hmmm ….
birds disappearing…. large ocean species dying off…biggest storms ever recorded…
second hottest year on record… polar ice melting…oceans turning acidic… you know, it’s almost time…
[alarm bells, sirens, warning beeps…]
That was from my Radio Ecoshock year in review in December 2005! Fast forward to 2021 when the unbelievable officially becomes the new normal. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, just issued maps of the new weird normal for the United States. Scientist Michael Mann say it is a mistake to set a new normal every 10 years, as NOAA does. That hides huge changes developing during our lives, as the climate shifts. Extreme heat in so many parts of the Northern Hemisphere in the month of May is not normal!
Toronto Canada got summer heat of 30 degrees C, 86 Fahrenheit before the May 24 holiday. I grew up in Toronto. That never happened. It’s crazy talk. In May 2021 it was hotter still in Moscow, reaching for 90 degrees F, over 32 C. Wild hot weather sent Muscovites to the water fountains and ice cream stands in shorts. In May. Not possible.
One thousand miles northeast of Moscow, near the Arctic Sea, Naryan-Mar, a town of 21,000 north of the Arctic Circle, saw 89.4 degrees F, almost 32 C. French meteorologists in France said the previous record high was 82, 25 C. Some temperatures in the Russian Arctic are the highest and earliest ever seen.
The heat seems to gather in atmospheric pools almost half a continent wide. But it’s wavy. Europe in the same third week of May was colder than normal. But on the other side of the world, Canada’s prairies went through their own late spring heat machine. That comes on top of a drought. Wild fires have broken out in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario at a scale never seen this early in the year. Smoke from the Manitoba fires drifted over New England.
Like most of the U.S. Southwest, the soil in my valley home is dust looking for help. These are supposed to be the wet months, but homeowners have their sprinklers going, while the unexpectedly low rivers is already being pumped out by the farmers. It’s not right.
Half way across America, Lake Charles Louisiana had more rain than anyone can stand. The ground was totally loaded with water when another storm brought eighteen more inches of rain in 24 hours. I guess you could call that an extreme precipitation events. Remember, that’s the town that was hit twice by hurricanes – Laura and Delta in 2020.
Two decades ago climate scientists predicted the dry will get dryer and the wet will get wetter. It all gets hotter, with some places getting hotter than most. We are in a car slowly rolling toward the climate cliff. Right now the speed is slow enough, people could just step out and not get hurt much. But the seats are comfortable. There is a custom video channel playing right now, some feel restrained by their seatbelts. We feel safer in our cars, always have. The car is gradually picking up speed, so it will be dangerous to try and jump out later. But to our amazement, hardly anyone tries to get out!
You may be hoping to crawl out of the dark years of the pandemic. Most of us will. But consumer “normal” set the planet into a fever. If we go back to burning carbon for fun… well, a whole new beast is emerging. out of the heat. We are going to talk about just one deadly way this could unfold, anytime – even this summer.
I have a whole book of interviews about high heat and how it kills. You can order that book for just $7 here. That fee helps cover the costs of getting the transcriptions of almost 2 dozen interviews with heat experts, plus a little to lay out the book complete with references and live links you can click to get source documents. Knowing the risks of heat, signs of overheating, and what to do is key information. Everyone needs to read “Extreme Heat”.
HEAT UP GRID DOWN with Brian Stone Jr
“A widespread blackout during an intense heat wave may be the deadliest climate-related event we can imagine.”
– Brian Stone Jr.
What could be the most deadly climate-driven disaster in the United States and probably most world cities? You are about to find out – and not in 2050. It is possible this summer. News from a new paper led by our guest Brian Stone Jr. just hit the New York Times, CBS News and a lot more. Brian is a Professor in the School of City and Regional Planning, at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he directs the Urban Climate Lab.
Or watch it on YouTube.
Cities are heating much faster than the global mean average temperature we always hear about. That is because of greenhouse gases and global warming of course. But expert Brian Stone Jr. says that is only responsible for about half the heat in your city. The rest comes from burning fossil fuels including the heat from our cars and trucks. Then the stolid mass of concrete stores up the heat instead of releasing it. Plus cities that were covered with forests no longer have that green life to cool down the landscape by transpiring moisture. Even the shape of buildings, especially as they rise higher, contributes to the “urban heat island effect”.
Our recent guest Lei Zhou published evidence cities will go up to 4 degrees C hotter. We already see heat records falling in major cities around the world. American cities have avoided the heat deaths that would have occurred by becoming dependent on air-conditioned spaces. Stone Jr. and associates worked through massive data on 3 U.S. cities: Atlanta (East, hot and humid), Detroit (more northerly, mid-West), and Phoenix (hot and dry Southwest). If the grid goes down during a major heat wave in those cities – about 70% of homes in Detroit and Atlanta would get too hot for human health. For Phoenix, it is 100%, where heat inside people’s homes could go over 110 degrees F (43 C).
Brian Stone Jr. documents a looming disaster which could come any summer in the United States. Expect mass casualties, well beyond the 700-plus people who died in the 1995 Chicago heat wave. If you think this is exaggerated or alarmist, remember at least 14,000 people died in their homes in France in the European heat wave of 2003. At least 700 people a day died in Moscow in the heat wave of 2010. So even without power failures, heat alone can be a mass casualty event. Take out the A/C and shocking illness and deaths seem inevitable.
NO, COOLING CENTERS CAN’T SAVE US
By the way: no, cities do not have this risk covered with Cooling Centers for the public. The 3 cities studied had only a few cooling centers, which MIGHT be able to hold up to 2% of the population. The rest are left out in the heat. Stone Jr. says: “In Atlanta we have 5 cooling centers for the entire city. In Detroit we have 15 and in Phoenix we have 18”.
Worse, no state mandates that cooling centers have backup power. Hardly any of the cooling centers these authors studied had any backup generation. So when the grid goes down, they are as hot and useless as all the other buildings in the city. They are a facade of safety that won’t work.
In the interview we discuss Brian’s 2012 book “The City and the Coming Climate”.
Professor Brian Stone Jr., Georgia Tech and the Urban Climate Lab
Brian also talks about why some people do not turn air-conditioning on even when it is stifling inside. They may have always survived with just fans, or they fear thousand dollar electric bills like those folks got in Texas last February. If we depend on air-conditioning for life itself, maybe access to electricity will become a basic human right on a hot planet.
Climate scientists worry about so-called “compound events”. An example cited in this paper could be wildfires breaking out during a drought. That sounds possible this year in the U.S. Southwest. But the study goes further, adding non-climatic stressors – non-weather events which still add to climate impacts. The grid going down would be a non-climatic stressor. But Brian does tell us various ways a heat wave can make it more likely the electric grid will fail. Here are more than a dozen reasons I thought of:
OVER A DOZEN REASONS WHY THE GRID MAY GO DOWN DURING A HEAT WAVE (Alex)
1. A concurrent solar storm. The U.S. grid is poorly protected against an EMP event (electromagnetic pulse). This would be an accidental concurrence, as solar flares do not cause heat waves on Earth, according to NOAA.
2. Super demand from all those air-conditioners (and A/C, particularly heat pumps, cannot keep up past certain temperatures).
3. Electric companies in California shut down the grid due to high concurrent wildfire risk from their power lines in September 2019 during a heat wave.
4. A concurrent drought may reduce available hydro-electric power. Bartos et al add during heat both solar and gas turbines lose efficiency and produce less power (see below).
5. Too hot cooling water can shut down nuclear plants and coal plants too!
6. The grid works less efficiently, and is more fragile during high heat.
7. Concurrent terrorist attack or misguided social protest could break the grid. Terror attacks against the grid are rising in the United States and elsewhere.
8. Concurrent wildfires burn down key transmission or production facilities.
10. technical weakness within power lines during high heat (see Ray Klump info)
11. Very high temperatures also make it dangerous for outdoor workers like power maintenance people to do their job when the grid is threatened or goes down. Repairs might have to be done at night, or using rotating crews, or under some conditions, might have to wait for a break in the heat…
12. Climate change denial is often strong in places where the risk of heat and grid failure are greatest, like in Texas and Arizona. That leads to inaction and lack of public planning.
13. Global warming increases major storm activity which can bring down the grid, with extremely hot weather following. This has happened repeatedly in the U.S. South following hurricanes.
REACHING THE CLIMATE INSIDE
“What is new here is we are not focusing on temperatures outside…but actually understanding what heat exposure are inside people’s homes.”
Scientists began to study warming at a global level with giant grids suitable for the computing power of the day. With more satellite data coming in, and better computers, the move has been more and more to develop measurements and predictive models for regions, like the U.S. Southwest or Northern England. Most recently scientists like Radio Ecoshock guest Lei Zhao took that study in the detail of cities themselves. We can call up the heat footprint of most cities, from Melbourne to Paris.
Stone and colleagues bring that expertise right inside our homes. You can find out how they did it their paper published in Environmental Science and Technology on April 30th. The title is “Compound Climate and Infrastructure Events: How Electrical Grid Failure Alters Heat Wave Risk”.
BLACKOUTS IN THE UNITED STATES ARE INCREASING
From the Stone Jr. paper Abstract:
“The potential for critical infrastructure failures during extreme weather events is rising. Major electrical grid failure or “blackout” events in the United States, those with a duration of at least 1 h and impacting 50,000 or more utility customers, increased by more than 60% over the most recent 5 year reporting period. “
From the paper:
“The annual number of major electrical grid failure or “blackout” events in the United States -those with a duration of at least 1 h and impacting 50,000 or more utility customers – increased by more than 60% over the most recent 5 year reporting period (Figure 1), with an average of 46% of these blackout events occurring between May and September, when heat risk is elevated. When such blackout events coincide in time with heat wave conditions, as has occurred recently in response to wildfires and electrical grids overtaxed by high demand, population exposures to extreme heat both outside and within buildings can reach dangerously high levels as mechanical air conditioning systems become inoperable.”
THEY FIND 12,000 DEATHS A YEAR IN THE U.S. ALONE WITH HEAT AS CONTRIBUTING FACTOR.
Stone says in Detroit only about 60% of homes have access to full air-conditioning. In a blackout, all three cities studied would be without AC. Temperatures would go over 115 degrees F (46 deg. C) inside their homes. About 33% of those city residents would experience dangerous temperatures within their homes without AC. Actually, they found two thirds or more of the population of these 3 study cities would face a risk of heat exhaustion or death if the grid goes down during a heat wave.
FURTHER READING: “A New, Deadly Risk for Cities in Summer: Power Failures During Heat Waves” (New York Times, May 3, 2021, Subscription required).
A RELATED 2016 STUDY ON RISING HEAT AND POWER LINES
Letter • the following article is open access
BARTOS ET AL SAY ABOUT DECREASING POWER GENERATION DURING HEAT…
“... extreme heat may reduce the power output of peaking generation sources like gas turbines, which become less efficient as the density of air decreases [1, 3], and photovoltaic solar cells, which lose efficiency at high air temperatures due to increased carrier recombination rates . By mid-century, changes in climate may reduce vulnerable generation capacity in the Western US by as much as 1.1%–3.0% in an average year, and up to 7.2%–8.8% under a ten-year drought scenario”
Matthew Bartos, Mikhail Chester, et al
Published 2 November 2016 Environmental Research Letters
MORE FROM BRIAN STONE JR.
Brian Stone Jr ,Jason Vargo, et al. Published: June 25, 2014 PLOS Open Access
Brian on YouTube 2015
Brian Stone, Jr.: “Climate Change in US Cities: Managing A Rising Tide of Extreme Heat” | 2015 Clinton School Speakers Original airdate: 09/08/2015
In this presentation Brian notes that when NASA publishes temperature maps for the U.S., they only use rural temperature readings, because they know city temperatures are abnormally higher due to the urban heat island effect. So a great deal of higher heat, including that felt by the vast majority of Americans in cities, is not included in most government published maps, reports, and warnings.
MORE RADIO ECOSHOCK RESOURCES ON EXTREME CITY HEAT
I interviewed Brian Stone Jr.’s co-author Matei Georgescu from Arizona State University in April 2021. We talked about how cities will not only be hotter, but more likely to flood. We just saw that again last week with the storms that dropped as much as 18 inches of rain in 24 hours on Lake Charles LA, and more floods in Houston and beyond.
In February 2018 I broadcast an interview with Dr. Mat Santamouris in Australia. He measured incredible heat over 140 degrees on a car-park roof in Darwin but about 40 degrees cooler in the shade of a nearby tree. There are lots of things we can do, from painting roofs white, to changing the color or roads, more trees and water features – to reduce the urban heat island effect.
When I interviewed Stan Cox about his book “Losing Our Cool” he suggested the modern American South could not exist in such number without air-conditioning. Lose that and we would see millions of climate migrants heading north.
HISTORIC OCCURRENCES OF HIGH HEAT AND GRID FAILURES…
3. Russia summer 2010 (and Saudi Arabia 2010)
4. Northeast Blackout August 2003 (USA and Eastern Canada)
5. Moscow Russia 2005
THE 1999 SOUTHERN BRAZIL BLACKOUT
The 1999 Southern Brazil blackout was a widespread power outage (the largest ever at the time) that occurred in Brazil on March 11 to June 22, 1999. (NOT directly heat related, really a system breakdown due to investment failure…)
MORE WORRY ABOUT THE FRAGILE GRID: DR. RAY KLUMP
In 2019, Southern California Edison shut down transmission lines to millions of people -during severe heat. Why would they do that? We can ask about that, and other reasons why your home and community might lose air-conditioning during a heat wave, risking health and even death.
Our guide here is Dr. Ray Klump. Ray leads a double life. On the one hand he is an Associate Professor of Computer and Mathematical Sciences at Lewis University in Illinois. But Dr. Price is also Software Engineer and Senior consultant for PowerWorld. There Ray helps develop software that monitors performance, safety and security of large electric systems.
We know power stations including nuclear and coal sometimes have to shut down during heat waves because they can’t get enough cooling water. Gas turbines have troubles in high heat, and even solar panels become less efficient once the heat gets over 100 degrees F, or 37C. There are greater losses in power line transmission during heat waves as well. A 2016 study lead by Matt Bartos, now at the University of Texas, found by mid-century, rising air temperatures may reduce summertime transmission capacity by 1.9%-5.8% on average, relative to the 1990-2010. So power demand will keep going up as we get hotter, we can expect less production and reduced transmission during heat waves.
THE TERRORIST ANGLE TO GRID DOWN
Professor Brian Stone just told us about compound events” – kind of a convergence of threats to the grid. There are so many reasons why an electric grid may fail, but one we didn’t raise was a terrorist attack timed during a heat wave, intending to cause multiple heat deaths. Hacking has brought down power systems. Ray was called on an expert when the Ukraine electric grid was hacked and shutdown in December 2015.
What if Con Edison or any giant grid operator is hit with Ransom ware like Colonial Pipelines. Everybody has to worry about that now? Various intelligence and media reports suggest Russia already has the capability to hack American infrastructure, from dams to power stations and the grid. Maybe China does too. Do you think that is possible, and is today’s grid prepared and resilient? Is there a point in a grid hack where U.S. Cyber Command steps in? Who is watching the store?
In 2017 I interviewed Dr. Peter Pry about the ways an electromagnetic pulse, an EMP event, could knock out large parts of the U.S. electric system, possibly for months if major transformers are wrecked. That could be due to an atmospheric nuclear detonation or just a very large solar flare. Do you think an electromagnetic pulse could blackout large areas, and if so, how ready are American electricity providers?
SOLAR FLARES ARE BACK: BLOOMBERG ($) or Weatherboy (free).
MAYBE SEA ICE LOSS IS NOT CHANGING WINTER WEATHER?
I just have a few minutes to update you on a controversy covered on this show. Is the huge loss of Arctic Sea Ice cover changing both the Jet Stream and the climate further south. Rutgers scientist Jennifer Francis has been just one of the experts on this program saying sea ice was a factor, possibly even for abnormal cold Arctic air falling down into North America and Europe in recent years. Francis was reporting observations, two concurrent events. But there was lots of debate among scientists about whether sea ice was a cause, or the distorted “Polar Vortex” was just a limited event which would return to it’s former swirl around the high Arctic.
Dr. James Screen from the University of Exeter has been working this problem for at least half a decade. He just published a study showing, in the words of Paul Voosen at Science Magazine:
“Even after the massive sea ice loss expected by midcentury, the polar jet stream will only weaken by tiny amounts—at most only 10% of its natural swings. And in today’s world, the influence of ice loss on winter weather is negligible, says James Screen”
Francis now says we now know systems in the Arctic are far more complex. In fact Francis and Screen were co-authors of a 2016 article finding that Pacific atmospheric conditions were a large driver of Arctic Sea Ice loss. That’s my understanding of it, but check out the paper with a link in my blog at ecoshock.org. It is easier to understand what these scientists are arguing against than what they are arguing for. But that is one method of seeking truth: eliminating suspects.
It appears that some of the speculation from Francis, and agreed by many other scientists including Paul Beckwith, is now being questioned. The Jet Stream is more wavy than in the 1950s, according to new research, but not that much. We don’t know the cause. It may not be related to Arctic sea ice decline. Reality is always shrouded in layers of possibilities. The human mind is limited and self-deceiving. Science always questions itself.
On the little matter of heat waves in May all the way to the Arctic, I can only think of one minor question for you. Where should you be living in 2030? Is it safe for you and family to stay where you are now? Sadly, governments are not planning for the new reality. They are not even planning to save us from catastrophic warming. Not really. So it’s up to us. What will you do? What will we do?
Thank you for being so patient to work through difficult issues and new science. Sorry for this long blog, but I thought someone may want to know. Please donate to keep this going if you can!
Alex for Radio Ecoshock.