Omaha’s Extreme Weather and the “Code Red for Humanity” Report

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Hannah Michelle Bussa
NEWS EDITOR

Flash flooding in downtown Omaha on August 7. Photo courtesy of Molly Ashford/The Gateway

On August 7, flash floods hit Omaha, catching national attention and damaging businesses, cars, homes and the sewers in some parts of the city.

The city of Omaha is expected to apply for federal disaster aid, which could mean FEMA relief. People needing assistance can also contact the Red Cross.

Just days after these flash floods, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an assessment report, calling the global rise in temperatures a “code red for humanity.”

Matt Serwe, Morning Meteorologist for KETV, said these flash floods in Omaha are related to climate change.

“Extreme precipitation events are strongly influenced by human-caused climate change,” he said.

Serwe said the IPCC report adds more confidence to that connection, specifically over central North America.

“On a very simple level, warm air can hold more water,” he said. “If the atmosphere is heating more, especially in the warm months, it allows for more intense rainfall rates in our typical strong or severe storms.”

Bruce E. Johansen, Professor Emeritus at UNO, has authored multiple books on infrared forcing, the scientific name for climate change.

(Note: Johansen said he finds “climate change” to be a vague term for global warming, because the climate is always changing, for many reasons. For consistency, this article will refer to it as climate change throughout.)

Johansen said though it is tough to pin a single event to a much broader trend, the flash floods in Omaha were probably related to climate change. The intensity of the rainfall fits the pattern of warmer air holding more moisture.

The August 7 flash flooding heavily impacted low-lying areas of Omaha’s Old Market. Photo courtesy of Molly Ashford/The Gateway

He also mentioned the storm that hit Omaha in July with winds equaling those of a category two hurricane.

“The association with global warming is the violence and frequency of storms,” he said.

Johansen used two words to explain climate change: “thermal inertia.”

“Many people do not realize that climatic patterns have a delayed effect,” he said. “In the case of global warming, about 50 years on land and 150 years over the oceans…fossil fuels burned today will have an effect equal to that emission in about 2160.”

Zee Elmer, the SustainUNO President, said while extreme weather events aren’t unusual every once in a while, climate change is causing them to become more frequent and more severe.

“On the path we are currently on, Nebraskans can expect to experience more extreme flooding as well as droughts, as well as more intense summers and winters,” they said.

Elmer said this disrupts growing seasons, putting those dependent on Nebraskan agriculture for both their food and livelihood at great risk.

Serwe said the impacts from climate change are already being seen globally, with extreme temperatures (hot and cold), extreme precipitation (drought and flood) and more rapidly strengthening tropical systems. The IPCC report is the strongest evidence yet of how human activity, like burning fossil fuels, is altering and will continue to alter common patterns.

Serwe said: “There are only specific types of events where we can point and say, ‘That was because of climate change!’ Those are temperature extremes, precipitation extremes, and tropical cyclones.”

Elmer said the flooding in 2019 is a memorable example locally.

Serwe said the 2019 floods were caused by extreme cold driving the frost deep, and then big snow events were followed quickly by abnormally heavy rain for March, plus a week of abnormally warm temperatures.

“Those dominoes all fell in the right order to cause massive melting and runoff that broke levees and kept rivers high for months,” he said.

As these extreme weather events continue, it is possible for Nebraskans to see extreme cold as a result of climate change. Serwe said due to climate change, the Polar Vortex could wobble farther south in the winter.

“This is responsible for some of the extremely cold days we have had in the last few winters,” he said.

Climate change is known to impact communities of color disproportionately.

Much of Johansen’s writing has focused on the intersection of Native American studies and climate change.

“Really, Native peoples are subject to the same climatic forces as the rest of us,” he said. “Sometimes they live in areas that are more vulnerable (such as coastlines) and live off animals and plants that are more vulnerable, such as salmon in the Pacific Northwest.”

He said in June, the heatwave in the Pacific Northwest caused a lot of salmon, which are cold-water fish, to die in the heat.

“It takes a thick, ignorant head not to attribute such heat to global warming,” Johansen said.

Serwe said some of the more recent effects of climate change in the local area include the elevated smoke from western and Canadian wildfires.

“As drought worsens in different parts of the world, wildfire seasons can become more extreme,” he said. “Like we have seen this summer, that can result in a smoky sky thousands of miles away, and potentially a drop in air quality.”

Elmer said it is important to get educated and tell others about this reality.

“Climate Change is not a 100-years-from-now issue, nor is it even a 20-years-from-now issue like so many people have thought,” she said. “Climate change is a today-issue that we should all be fighting to prevent.”

Elmer said UNO students can make a few moderate changes to their lifestyles, like using public transportation, walking, biking and consuming less meat.

Serwe also suggested recycling, composting and the other local, individual-level things thatElmer suggested.

However, both Serwe and Elmer pointed to the need for large corporations and companies to do their part to stop using fossil fuels.

Serwe said: “People need to understand that the situation is dire, but there is also time to act. It’s easy to be fearful of the work needed to make changes. Instead of causing fear-induced paralysis, this report should strengthen the resolve to make those big changes and push for elected officials to make the biggest changes.”

Elmer said UNO students should be aware that they can make a difference.

“It can absolutely be an overwhelming feeling to be aware of what is happening to the world around us and feel like we are too small to do anything about it, but by educating ourselves and others and aligning our actions with our morals we can begin to shift towards the future we want to see,” they said.

Elmer said students can start on UNO’s campus by calling on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents to fully divest from the fossil fuel industry, as both Creighton and Doane have committed to do.

“That is the type of large-scale action that could have a bigger impact on driving our society away from its dependence on fossil fuels,” Serwe said. “People can drive electric cars, use metal straws, and have all renewable energy at home, however, the bigger impacts will likely come from policy makers pressuring large companies to clean up their collective act.”

Those wanting to get involved with the divestment movement and SustainUNO can reach out via Instagram, Facebook, or suno@unomaha.edu.

“If there is any good to come from the last 18 months, it should be an increased trust in scientists,” Serwe said. “Epidemiologists are telling us what we need to do to beat a pandemic. Climate scientists have been telling us for decades about the damage we are doing to the climate. It is time to start listening more and taking bigger action.”

“Climate change does not have to be the end of the world, not if we make the effort to offset the damage already done,” Elmer said.

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