June 6, 2022
Even though Cincinnati is far from the coasts and has been called a “climate haven,” threats from summer heat, winter warming, heavy rains, and flooding are real and growing. Local leaders are working on strategies for both mitigation and adaptation.
The clouds on the western horizon tease the promise of relief. The sun’s been merciless the past three weeks, turning the air into a noxious mix of choking ozone and bludgeoning heat.
ILLUSTRATION BY PHIL WRIGGLESWORTH
A runway at CVG buckles. The power grid teeters. The sweat-soaked home plate umpire at a Reds game collapses. A group of kids from Bond Hill fry an egg on the sidewalk and become the latest TikTok sensations. The asphalt along Vine Street shimmers with fever, and Over-the-Rhine is as empty as it was during the dark days of COVID.
People are staying in their homes, drawing their shades, hunkering down. They’re the lucky ones. Others, with no air-conditioning, roast in their brick apartment buildings, unable to escape the relentless heat. Nighttime offers little relief. Some die.
But those clouds bring a bit of hope—until it starts raining. It comes down in sheets of water so intense that those who’d run outside to welcome the respite are soon driven back inside. Streets overflow; sewers back up. Small streams jump their banks, turning backyards into lakes. Sump pumps are ineffective, and basements along the Mill Creek watershed begin to fill.
It rains for hours that way and, at some point, the ground can take no more. People nearby say they hear a rumble and figure it’s thunder. It isn’t. Instead, an imposing hillside towering over Columbia Parkway slides forward on a river of rain, turning into an avalanche of soil, trees, rocks, and million-dollar homes.
Is this Cincinnati’s version of the Apocalypse? Maybe. Skeptics might call this scenario alarmist or even hysterical. Some critics—most of them politically motivated—accuse science and scientists of perpetuating a hidden agenda. But Mother Nature, like the COVID virus, doesn’t care about the politics. She’s just getting warmed up.
“Climate change has shifted from being this nebulous could happen to it’s happening right now, and we see it in a real way,” says Michael Forrester, director of Cincinnati’s Office of Environment and Sustainability. Previously the city’s energy manager, he’s been helping prepare city government for a future climate that will be warmer, wetter, and more extreme.
Cincinnati’s average temperature is already almost 2 degrees higher than in the 1950s, says Forrester, and—unless things change—scientists believe we’re in for another increase of 4 to 6 degrees by the end of this century. And while you or even your kids may not be around to see 2100, the path between here and there will likely be disruptive, painful, and expensive in ways you haven’t contemplated.
Disruptive as in the exponential problem of climate refugees—people forced to migrate because their homeland can no longer support food production. It’s already happening in the stream of Central Americans gathering at and crossing our southern border. Painful as in an expansion north of diseases and invasive species heretofore contained in tropical zones. Expensive as in increases in energy costs and insurance rates and higher prices passed down by businesses retrofitting operations to face a volatile climate.
“It’s a huge problem that’s hard for people to get their arms around,” acknowledges Ryan Mooney-Bullock, executive director of Green Umbrella, the region’s premier sustainability alliance. Green Umbrella tackles energy efficiency, transportation infrastructure, local food systems, biodiversity, green spaces, environmental equity, and a host of other issues.
Ryan Mooney-Bullock (left) and Savannah Sullivan lead Green Umbrella’s advocacy efforts.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARY JO MCCLAIN
Mooney-Bullock admits that climate change can be overwhelming and, as the opening of this story suggests, scary. “People see on the news what climate change is doing already,” she says, noting that until people feel the impact directly, those worries are often put on hold. “It’s not only about polar bears floating away on broken icebergs. It’s about how you can’t cook out in the summer or you have to constantly dry out your flooded basement or you remember it used to snow more in the winter.”
Do you recall last Christmas Day? The temperature hit a record 69 degrees. Two weeks earlier, a deadly tornado plowed through western Kentucky, staying on the ground for an astonishing and destructive 165 miles, killing 57 people along its path. In December. While we often think of climate change as searing summer heat (a.k.a. global warming), records indicate that it’s a 365-day phenomenon now.
“It’s actually the winter months where we’ve seen greater impact,” says Bryan Mark, Ohio’s state climatologist. A geography professor at Ohio State University, he’s an expert in glacial geology and interactions among land mass, water, and the atmosphere. Interestingly, and perhaps a suggestion of how seriously climate change is taken by some political leaders, the state climate office has no budget. Mark, who calls himself “just a thin New Englander with spectacles,” says his small staff is compensated by the university as part of a “service commitment,” not by state government.
The warmer winters, Mark says, pose both a problem and an opportunity for Ohio’s $93 billion farming industry. On one hand, the state’s growing season has expanded as killing frosts come later; on the other, higher average nighttime temperatures and the lower number of hard freeze days mean agricultural pests and fungal pathogens have a better chance to survive each winter. Spring rains have been earlier and more intense, disrupting farmers’ planting schedules and forcing them to till when the soil is still wet; that results in soil compacting, which adversely impacts yields. “The Farm Bureau is seeing all of this as a threat multiplier,” Mark notes, “with impacts on production, profitability of the farm, and eventually food prices for consumers.”
GRAPH ILLUSTRATION BY CARLIE BURTON / DATA FROM NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Fourth National Climate Assessment—written and edited by more than 300 science, business, academic, and government experts—has confirmed the longer growing season (up nine days in the last 100 years) and sees the warming trend accelerating. By 2045, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts, the Midwest’s frost-free season will increase by another 10 days; it’ll grow an additional 10 days by 2065 and a full month by the end of this century. As the temperatures increase, crops will be stressed to the point that, to quote the report, “By mid-century…maximum temperatures are projected to have moved further above optimum conditions for many crops and closer to the reproductive failure temperature, especially for corn in the southern half of the Midwest.”
That’s us. If these experts are right or unless the trends reverse, our grandkids might be traveling up I-71 to Columbus someday and whiz by fields of cotton instead of rows of corn.
Our climate, Mark explains, is a complex system that’s influenced both by nature and, more and more, by human beings. He’s quick to differentiate climate from weather. Think of your afternoon thunderstorm or even a weeklong heat wave as weather—a temporary event that, as we all know living in Cincinnati, can change in a few hours. Climate refers to the long-term atmospheric trends and is typically measured, in the case of climate change, over at least a 30-year period.
Earth’s temperature has gone up and down many times during its roughly 4.5 billion years of existence. Continents were formed, species evolved and disappeared, and land was scoured by glaciers and deposited here to sculpt our seven hills. When the planet was exceptionally warm, scientists say, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was as high as 10 times today’s level. Then, when greenhouse gases fell, the planet cooled dramatically.
There were and still are natural reasons that Earth’s temperature fluctuates. But now? An international panel of climate experts have agreed, since 1988, that most of what we’ve experienced recently isn’t natural. The planet is heating up because of us. They use terms like “unequivocal” in their latest United Nations report, and warn this “unprecedented” and “dangerous” warming is leading to a climate “that could surpass thresholds sustaining human health and agriculture.”
The records don’t lie. Since scientists began keeping records in 1880, 21 of the world’s highest average temperatures have occurred in this century alone, according to the European Union Science Consortium. The culprit? Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which are emitted primarily by the industrial and transportation sectors. These gases trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, much like how clouds keep evening temperatures from falling.
Carbon dioxide’s atmospheric content is measured in parts per million at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii; it was 420 ppm in April. Scientists say this is the highest it’s been in at least 4 million years, when saber tooth tigers and mastodons roamed the planet in the Pliocene epoch. World Meteorological Organization scientists say humans are living in unknown territory and the pace of warming has accelerated. More than half the carbon dioxide mankind has sent into the air since the Industrial Revolution began in 1750 has been emitted in the last 40 years.
“It’s real,” Mark says, “and it’s not the sun or just a natural cycle. It’s us.”
So then, what do we do? There are two principal strategies where policy leaders focus much of their time: mitigation and adaptation.
“We need to make our city more resilient to climate change,” insists Forrester, who in March joined Mayor Aftab Pureval in kicking off the third update of the Green Cincinnati Plan. “That means looking at our infrastructure and figuring out ways to mitigate the impact heat will have on our residents. It means ensuring that our infrastructure, a lot of it built for the climate we had 100 years ago, can meet the challenges of the climate we’re going to have.”
Forrester thinks about the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed 739 people, most of them elderly and poor. Just three years ago, more than 1,400 people died in two separate heat waves that suffocated Germany, France, and the Low Countries. He thinks about the torrential rains that flooded Belgium last July, six days after epic thunderstorms turned New York’s subway into a river.
When Forrester speaks of resiliency, he means adaptation—a recognition, in this case, that the climate is inexorably warming and we need to figure out how to live with it and in it. Contrast that with a mitigation strategy, which focuses on ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
Think of the city of Cincinnati’s mammoth solar array in Highland County as a mitigation strategy. The electricity generated from that renewable zero-carbon energy source replaces standard electricity generated by burning coal or natural gas. Similarly, think of a commitment to replace your fleet of gas-guzzling cars and trucks with electric vehicles and working with partners to install hundreds of charging stations around town.
Getting out from under the blazing sun and into the shade is an example of an adaptation strategy. Think of planting trees, improving your home’s insulation, buying more energy-efficient appliances, or even replacing your black-shingled home with a white or green (as in a garden) roof. These are all in the Green Cincinnati plan city leaders adopted back in 2018. As homeowners and utility customers have discovered, the strategies have a side benefit: They can save you money.
“The tree canopy is especially important in the urban environment, where the heat island effect is pronounced,” Forrester says. Treeless cityscapes, asphalt pavement, and brick buildings—often found in low-income neighborhoods—have resulted in temperatures as much as 8 degrees higher than in our leafier communities, according to local heat mapping studies. Groundwork Ohio River Valley, Green Umbrella, and the city collaborated on that study last summer.
According to Forrester, some of the most searing heat islands are along the Mill Creek valley in neighborhoods like Camp Washington, South Fairmount, Lower Price Hill, Bond Hill, Lincoln Heights, and Roselawn. “What’s especially bad about the heat in these neighborhoods is that people who live there get little relief in the nighttime hours,” he notes. “The built infrastructure holds the heat in at night, and it becomes a public health issue when people have no opportunity to cool off.”
Heat, in fact, is the No. 1 weather-related killer, according to the National Weather Service—more than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and lightning. It can kill anyone anywhere, but low-income and minority communities are particularly susceptible. “It’s really important that we have equity-centered action on climate change,” says Savannah Sullivan, climate policy director for Green Umbrella. “Our most vulnerable communities are suffering disproportionately in terms of their actual physical impacts, but it also adversely affects people socially and economically.”
Air quality in those communities, Sullivan notes, is often poor because they abut an industrial complex or an interstate highway. Many residents live in substandard, poorly insulated housing with inadequate air-conditioning. There’s little to no green space or tree canopy to soften the searing heat. These conditions, she says, strain physical and mental health, discourage social interaction, and blow a disproportionate hole in the wallets of those living paycheck to paycheck.
Sullivan’s job is to coordinate climate change policy positions and solutions among dozens of local governments within Green Umbrella’s 10-county, three-state community. She organizes the annual Midwest Sustainability Summit, which this year is themed “Emergent Strategies for an Equitable Climate-Prepared Region.” On July 21, Green Umbrella plans to launch its Regional Climate Collaborative—a network designed to encourage local governments and the private sector to share ideas and information, institute policies, and design both mitigation and adaptation projects.
“We want to be on the cutting edge of developing climate solutions that work for our community,” Sullivan says with enthusiasm. The collaborative plans to develop a regional climate playbook to highlight best practices, specific needs, funding opportunities, and visions and to offer a menu of options on energy, transportation, efficiency, and other climate strategies that local governments can access and see what fits best.
This isn’t Green Umbrella’s first climate collaborative initiative. In fact, the organization was created in the late 1990s specifically to bring parties together to preserve and restore the region’s greenspaces. It’s since evolved into a multi-dimensional organization with hundreds of members working on everything from bike trails and healthy food to building efficiency and environmental education. Climate was always embedded in the organization’s work but wasn’t formally added to the agenda until two years ago.
Similarly, Cincinnati City Council formed a new climate committee this year, chaired by Councilmember Meeka Owens. Mooney-Bullock, complimenting former Mayor John Cranley’s environmental record, is optimistic the new leadership in City Hall is just as progressive. “We had a climate workshop for all the City Council candidates last April, and around 40 came,” she recalls. “Eight of those elected in November had climate plans as part of their campaigns. To me, that shows how the issue has matured.”
Climate change also poses a challenge to our rivers and streams, says Richard Harrison, executive director and chief engineer at the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), which focuses on the water quality of the Ohio River and its tributaries. A warming climate, especially one that incites epic rain events, grabs his attention.
Harrison echoes the oft-heard caveat that the impact of climate change on our region’s principal water resource is a complex topic. ORSANCO is a data-driven organization, he notes, directing me to a 2017 study conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that’s 321 pages long and kind of hard to follow if you don’t have a science background or a thick dictionary. It says climate change is affecting the Ohio River, and, as we warm up, those changes may become more pronounced. Increasingly heavy spring rains and more summer droughts impact barge navigation, hydroelectric generation, fish reproduction and diversity, algae growth, erosion, and sedimentation. While some of these could be seasonally beneficial, most aren’t; the wild swings from a swelling, roaring river in the spring to the leisurely, turbid summertime current concern river managers the most.
Harrison mentions how those signature heavy rains can overflow streets and overwhelm water sanitation systems. Out in the country or on your suburban lawn, fertilizer and pesticide runoff eventually makes it into the river. “Bacteria growth is really impacted by these rain events, especially through combined sewer overflows,” he says. “Fertilizer runoff carries chemicals that, if they become too concentrated, can cause algae blooms and harm fish.”
The Metropolitan Sewer District’s multibillion-dollar combined sewer project should help in Hamilton County, says Harrison. The city’s Forrester, however, isn’t so sure. The federal consent decree that required a makeover of our sewer system was based on requirements in the 1972 Clean Water Act. “There’s a recognition at MSD that we need to prepare for the future, but the consent decree isn’t set up that way,” he says. “We need to continue to plan and build these heavy, more frequent rains into our modeling.”
As the frequency of river and stream flooding has increased, property owners along water banks or further inland are seeing their insurance rates increase. Some might wonder if their homes will still be standing 30 years from now. A 2021 study by the nonprofit First Street Foundation showed that more than 230,000 homes along the Ohio River are at high risk for flooding as it flows through the heart of Appalachia. Most owners of these threatened homes are poor.
Closer to home, rising river levels present a challenge to a historical home. The website Stacker cross-referenced data from the Federal Energy Management Agency with the list of properties on the National Register of Historic Places, revealing the famous Underground Railroad stop in Ripley, the John P. Parker House, as being at “very high risk” of future flooding.
While these data points can certainly feel distressing, things could be worse. In fact, Cincinnati billed itself a future “climate haven” in the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, noting we “live outside the likely disaster areas” on the east and west coasts and the oppressive heat band in the deep south. No wildfires, hurricanes, or rising sea levels here. The Reds can still play outdoors in August (but always sit in the shade on the first base side for a day game), and most evenings you can still grill a burger on your Weber.
Still, this story’s opening scenario isn’t all that far-fetched. Forrester notes that the Cincinnati region has had nine rainstorms in the last 10 years qualifying as “100-year storms.” That’s defined as a storm so intense the chances of it happening are 1 percent.
Many of our storms have been selective, such as a tornado. You might get a 3-inch rain in Northside but only a few sprinkles in Oakley. And that hillside above Columbia Parkway? You remember how long that vital east-side artery was shut down while debris was cleared and the retaining walls fortified at a cost of $18 million. The city maintains more than 1,500 miles of similar hillside retaining walls.
But there are solutions: Big ones that government and industry can do, smaller ones you can do. They add up. Most of them can save you money on your energy bill, and some—like installing solar panels or buying an electric vehicle—have tax benefits. Maybe you’ve done some of them already, like buying LED light bulbs, upgrading your insulation, reducing your food waste, or riding the bus to work.
Those little things are important, says Green Umbrella’s Mooney-Bullock, but ultimately the federal government needs to figure it out and lead. In the meantime, she believes, it’s important to educate and do what we can as a community to develop tools to address specific area climate change impacts. Forrester agrees, but says the clock is ticking. The city of Cincinnati is decarbonizing, but China keeps building coal plants. We all share the carbon molecules. There’s only one ecosystem on the planet.
Ohio State’s Mark calls climate “a big ship to turn around,” noting the atmosphere is already front-loaded and carbon molecules are going to stay up there for generations. If we turned off every light right now, he says, the world’s temperature would still go up one degree in the coming years. The heat increase is baked in, so to speak. “We are smartening up to what we face, and now we need to pull up our bootstraps and get to work,” he says.
Adapt and suffer, he notes sardonically, is not a sustainable strategy.