Officials prepare for climate-caused disasters

CODY — Officials in the region are planning for the local effects of global climate change.

Wyoming Rising held a Truth in Action: Climate Reality and Rural Preparedness presentation on Nov. 23 at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center to discuss this topic.

Mary Keller, associate lecturer in religious studies and adjunct in African American and diaspora studies at the University of Wyoming, and Jack Tatum, director of homeland security for Park County, spoke at the event.

Tatum’s chief responsibility is preparing county residents for natural disasters and managing mitigation of these events as they happen. For Tatum it’s not an issue of if, but when.

“These big, bad things are going to happen, so we just need to be prepared for them,” he said.

Next year, he will start helping update the region’s Hazard Mitigation Plan for Park, Big Horn, Hot Springs and Washakie counties.

“Making sure we are accounting for things like climate change or more extreme weather events in our planning,” he said.

Tatum said most emergency managers find discussing climate change to be an “uncomfortable topic,” but he doesn’t shy away.

“It coincides with everything my office has to do,” Tatum said.

In recent decades wildfires have drastically increased in the West, a trend Tatum said will only continue.

In September, the Fishhawk Fire ravaged the North Fork, burning more than 11,000 acres. Luckily that wildfire started to dissipate shortly after reaching its apex thanks to cool and rainy weather, and no structures or human life were lost. It was the third major fire in Park County in four years.

Tatum said only 51 percent of Americans have a disaster plan and only 35 percent act on that plan. He said performing off-the-grid-type acts like buying solar panels and raising chickens can also help mitigate a natural disaster and decrease reliance on the government.

From a long-term perspective, land use planners will also need to consider climate-change-related natural risks.

“Can we build that home in that flood plain, should we build that home in that flood plain?” Tatum posed. “Should we expand the flood plain? Should we anticipate it’s going to get worse with time?”

When it comes to building codes, he said the city of Cody could enforce the use of more fire-resistant materials.

Temperatures in Wyoming have risen 2 degrees in the last 50 years. On the surface that may not seem like a world of difference, but for farmers even a slight change in climate can mean a harvest disaster.

“Wyoming has always taught us to pay attention,” Keller said.

From 2002-2009, Wyoming was in a severe drought. Although conditions have improved, the state’s soil condition is still considered abnormally dry.

“We should work hard to protect precious resources that deserve to be protected,” Keller said.

With warming temperatures Arctic glaciers melt, causing oceans to rise, rainstorms, droughts, floods and fires. Worldwide yields for corn (down 7.4 percent), wheat (6 percent), rice (3.2 percent) and soybeans (3.4 percent) are all expected to drop in coming years, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, due to climate change.

There have been no under-average world temperature years since the 1970s. Some 224 heat records were set in 2018.

One of the greatest flaws in global warming is in its name itself, as cooling incidents are also an important part of climate change.

“Increasing volatility bringing very deep and profound impacts,” Keller said.

Polar vortex events bring extreme cold temperatures from the Arctic to mid-latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. When warmer temperatures are experienced in the Arctic, which is experiencing warming at two to three times faster rate than the rest of the world, the jet stream can weaken, allowing cold air to travel south to the U.S.

In October, a rapid freeze-thaw-freeze cycle devastated local beet farmers, with 31 percent of local beets left unharvested.

“We see those extremes, those shifts, becoming much more varied and wide,” Tatum said.

On Dec. 5., Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon wrote a letter to Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, requesting disaster designation for the area. If granted, it will allow farmers to become eligible for financial disbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Recurring polar vortex events in the Rocky Mountain region have created cooler and wetter spring and autumn seasons. When this weather follows a summer or winter drought, the soil becomes unstable and erodes. An extreme erosion event was seen in 2018 when heavy rainfall brought on massive rockslides on both sides of the Wind River Canyon and outside Yellowstone National Park.

Tatum also said many long-time residents he spoke with in Powell found the flash flood that city experienced in July unmatched by any other event in their recollection.

Increased water has a detrimental effect on the globe as a whole. More than 66 percent of all waterborne diseases are caused by individual precipitation events, Keller said.

There have been $653 billion in economic losses in the last two years worldwide due to natural disasters, and in 2012 Tatum said the United States shouldered two-thirds of the world’s economic impacts from disaster events.

“To be a fiscal conservative means to ask on this stuff intelligently with the science we have,” Keller said.

Keller was also critical of the coal industry and mentioned many more people are employed in the solar industry nationwide than coal, gas and oil energy combined. The problem is on a local scale few Wyoming jobs exist in solar, while entire communities like Kemmerer are dependent on the coal industry for employment. Keller said rather than focus on the jobs, it should be the impact of coal as a whole that concerns people.

“The environment impacts the economy, so I am no less a part of it (coal) than anybody else,” Keller said. “People should not only be concerned for their children’s economic future but their economic future as well.”

Nancy Ryan, a grandmother to three children, also attended the presentation.

“I want to do what I can for the last few years of my life to raise awareness of this,” she said.