In a world marked by climate uncertainties, our water systems and utilities are faced with increasingly unpredictable shifts, including finding a solution to the heightened fluctuation between droughts and floods — also known as the whipsawing climate. But, since droughts and floods are not novel occurrences, what’s driving the urgency?
To unravel the solution to these sudden weather reversals and how utilities can prepare for them, we must first look at how they occur and the intricate interplay between the water cycle and this phenomenon.
Below, I share my thoughts on:
- The water cycle’s connection with whipsawing climates
- The concept and reality of whipsawing climates
- How utilities can prepare and navigate a whipsawing climate
What is the water cycle’s connection to a whipsawing climate?
The water cycle moves water – liquid, solid, and gas – from the land to the atmosphere and the ocean. It’s a global process that governs the availability of water, including when and where it becomes available, and dictates the precipitation patterns that impact our environment.
In my view, the water cycle is more than just a natural process. Since it profoundly influences ecosystems, energy systems, agriculture, and the functioning of cities and towns worldwide, it’s also a physical process critical for our society. Keeping this cycle in balance is crucial to sustaining crops, regulating energy systems, and meeting the needs of both wildlife and humans alike.
When we consider the infrastructure built around the water cycle, its significance becomes clearer. Reservoirs and dams, for instance, are designed to capture and store water during times of abundance, ensuring a stable supply during drier periods. This hydrological system forms the foundation upon which our society has been built.
However, climate change disrupts the balance of this delicate water cycle by amplifying and accelerating its processes. Warmer air holds more water which in turn accelerates the shift of water from its liquid state into the air which contributes to both more intense droughts and more devastating floods. Likewise, the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb moisture increases as temperatures rise, which can cause other extremes, such as drier landscapes.
The rise in temperatures can also result in extreme weather events that were previously considered rare. What were once infrequent occurrences are now inching towards becoming the new normal as extreme, overlapping events become not only more common but also more intense.
What is a whipsawing climate and how does it occur?
As we find ourselves at a juncture where droughts and floods — the opposite ends of the manifestation of the water cycle — can become more intense and more extreme due to the acceleration of the water cycle, we can also experience them in rapid succession.
This is what’s known as a whipsawing climate — named for the swift motion of a carpenter’s tool — which is characterized by rapid droughts and floods that occur quickly, one after the other. In this sense, the extreme ends of the water cycle are becoming intertwined.
For example, when a region is gripped by drought, the dry soil loses its water-retaining capacity, rendering it less able to absorb the sudden deluge of water during a flood. Consequently, the soil’s typical sponge-like behavior fails to materialize, leading to floods in cities and far beyond.
This means that it’s possible to experience a flood during a drought, and whereas droughts usually unfold over a more extended period, a flood might materialize without alleviating the dry conditions within a region or locality.
And of course, as we witness these significant shifts in patterns and intensities, we need to rethink our approach to water management.
Weathering the storm: How can utilities effectively prepare for a whipsawing climate?
Navigating these two, oscillating phenomena presents significant challenges for water managers and utilities.
Utilities, which provide essential services such as energy, water, and communication, also face unique challenges in adapting to a whipsawing climate; the strain on their infrastructure, supply chains, and operations underscores the need for proactive measures to ensure the resilience and reliability of these vital services. Plus, an increasingly compressed timeframe requires longer lead times to prepare.
There are several steps that utilities must take when preparing for a whipsawing climate. Firstly, they must seek to gain a comprehensive understanding of their systems and vulnerabilities to diverse climatic extremes. Secondly, they need to stress test their systems by evaluating how they performed during past extreme scenarios, as well as simulating scenarios involving floods and droughts using climate data.
Thirdly, diversification — which means greater flexibility and redundancy — will help utilities switch between different situations smoothly and effectively. For instance, they could widen their supply options to ensure they have emergency supplies and invest in systems that optimize their forecasting abilities, which will better help them tie water management with future conditions.
In the face of a whipsawing climate, where droughts and floods intertwine, utilities must strengthen their systems and learn how to use them to adjust to a future of potential extremes. Adapting now is pivotal for ensuring the availability of essential resources.
Paul Fleming is a water, climate, and tech consultant, a fellow of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, and a member of a US National Academy of Sciences Committee that is advising the US Global Change Research Program. Paul is one of many experts that we co-create with Qatium.