Pittsburgh's climate is changing
and some are fighting back
Reporting Julian Routh
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | October 12, 2017
Pittsburgh is 400 miles inland from the East Coast and 700 feet above sea level. It is nowhere near any massive icebergs, and its only polar bears live at the zoo. When the seas rise on much of New York City and engulf Miami, the city of bridges will stay dry.
But in Pittsburgh, the water will come pouring from the sky, the temperature will rise and climate change will shift from a distant worry to a daily obstacle for the average citizen.
In the next 50 to 100 years, communities will not just have to react to random weather events, but brace for frequent and intense storms that are a direct result of environmental change. As temperatures rise in an area that already suffers from poor air quality, fighting climate change is an immediate public health issue.
The fight is one that some communities — like Millvale — have already embraced. With its history of flooding and poor air quality, Millvale has taken immediate steps to “think globally and act locally,” as the borough’s sustainability coordinator, Zaheen Hussain, puts it.
After the town was devastated by storms twice in a matter of years, community officials decided that to right their wrongs, they’d have to look to the future.
“We don’t want to be a community that just makes noise. It’s easy to complain,” Mr. Hussain says. “We want to be a community of action.”
The temperature in Pittsburgh is expected to rise by at least 4.5 degrees in the next half century: That would make Pittsburgh’s climate like that of what city?
Pittsburgh is certainly getting hotter, and if its climate were more like Washington, D.C.’s, it would be noticeable.
Take dangerously hot summer days, for example. Pittsburgh has historically averaged fewer than 10 days a year over 90 degrees, but by 2050, city residents will have to endure more than 40 of these days, based on current projections.
And while Pittsburgh has recorded only nine days over 100 degrees since 1925, projections show that it could see 24 or more days over that mark per year, unless global emissions are reduced.
A 4.5-degree rise in temperature in the next 50 years is an optimistic estimate, too. If emissions continue to increase, temperatures in the northeastern United States could warm anywhere from 4.5 to 10 degrees by the 2080s, according to the National Climate Assessment, a 2014 report produced by more than 300 climate experts and a 60-member federal committee.
Of course, it’s easy to see a longer, hotter summer as a welcome benefit, but a temperature rise of that magnitude could also have many devastating impacts.
Stronger heat waves would amplify the risk of heat-related illness and death for vulnerable populations like children, people with disabilities and the elderly. Pittsburgh recorded about 25 heat-related deaths per year from 1975 to 1995, but that number could jump to 45 per year from 2045 to 2055.
Across 45 of the largest urban areas in the U.S. – including Pittsburgh – excess deaths on dangerously hot summer days were at an annual average of about 1,360 from 1975 to 2010.
One estimate by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that by the 2090s, that number could spike to an annual average of 29,850. By comparison, 28,344 people died from prostate cancer in the U.S. in 2014.
Allergy seasons would expand, too, as ragweed grows faster and produces more pollen under increased carbon dioxide levels. Between 1995 and 2011, pollen season in America, on average, expanded to become 11 to 27 days longer because of warmer temperatures.
But the danger that warmer temperatures could pose to sufferers of one respiratory disease is worrisome, particularly, in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh ranks in the worst 20 cities for which respiratory illness?
For Pittsburghers suffering from that respiratory disease, the increase of allergens and air pollution will make attacks more severe and more frequent, according to a study by the National Wildlife Federation.
A wave of air pollution — similar to the one in Donora in 1948, when a smog and heat plume settled around the town for several days — could test the city’s preparedness for health-related disasters, especially when paired with excessive heat. The University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health and a company called Intermedix worked with the city to model a scenario in 2025 in which Pittsburgh experiences a severe heat wave and an air pollution event at the same time.
The results showed how one climate disaster would affect public health, linking the risk of asthma and heat-stroke among a census-based population to how many 911 calls would come in per hour.
“We showed that, in many parts of Pittsburgh, you would hit areas where the emergency management system could not respond in the times it likes to respond to the numbers of events that occurred,” said Dr. Mark Roberts, who directs the school’s Public Health Dynamics Laboratory.
The ecosystem is seeing the impacts of climate change now. Shorter periods of frozen ground in the wintertime have led to an explosion of ticks in Western Pennsylvania. Ecologists are concerned about insects emerging early and birds arriving late, and in the waters, insect larvae hatch being out of step with trout, says Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh.
Local climate experts say farmers and gardeners will have to grow different strains of crops to keep up with the shifting seasons, and the cost of milk could rise as warmer temperatures affect the seasons for local dairy cow farmers.
Higher temperatures and more heat waves would test the city’s infrastructure and increase consumer utility bills, too, with greater demands on the electrical grid.
The danger that climate change poses for urban infrastructure is something that Costa Samaras has dedicated his professional life to. As head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Change, he is at the helm of one of the first programs in the nation that focuses on adapting infrastructure for climate change.
Temperature changes in Pittsburgh are already taking place. Government weather data shows the city has warmed steadily in the past half-century. The 2000s, on average, were about 2 degrees hotter than the 1960s.
The world, on average, has warmed by about one degree in the past 50 years, but that rate is accelerating; in the next three decades, it will get another degree warmer. Sixteen of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The global temperature in 2016 broke the record set by 2015, which shattered 2014’s record, and the likelihood of that happening by chance is about 0.8 to 1.5 percent.
The number of snow-covered days in the region has fallen, and will continue to decline over the course of this century, climate projections show. Snowmaking will become so difficult that Pennsylvania might no longer be able to support a skiing industry.
*Projection based on a 4.5 degree temperature raise by the 2080s.
“If we continue business as usual, which really we would expect the carbon dioxide emissions around the globe to go up, it would get noticeably warmer decade by decade,” says atmospheric chemist Neil Donahue, director of CMU’s Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research. “It really is warmer than it used to be – progressively, systematically warmer.”
Since 1894, there have been only 10 times Pittsburgh has gotten more than 2.9 inches of rain in one day. How many of those extreme rain events were in the past 20 years?
Pittsburgh already has a reputation for rainy weather, but what will happen when it gets rainier?
Imagine a Pittsburgh where there’s a constant fear of flash floods like the one in 2011 on Washington Boulevard, which killed four people; a Pittsburgh where small decisions about floodgates and stormwater runoff could save lives.
That’s a reality that isn’t far off. Scientists project that the frequency of heavy rain will continue to increase throughout the century in the Northeast, and that storms will be stronger – which is especially concerning for cities with many hills and valleys like Pittsburgh.
It’s already rainier in the region. Heavy rain events in the Northeast spiked more than 70 percent between 1958 and 2010, the highest regional increase in the country. More than a third of all thunderstorms recorded in Allegheny County since 1955 have occurred in the last six years, including a record-breaking 66 in 2013, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s database of storm events.
And that’s worrisome to several local climate experts, who warn that the Pittsburgh area’s stormwater systems – which are engineered to remove water from roads and sidewalks after storms – aren’t prepared for heavier rainfall and more frequent storming.
“Most of the stormwater management plans have been developed by lawyers and politicians, and they don’t understand the science,” says Louise Comfort, director of the Center for Disaster Management at the University of Pittsburgh. “Literally, it’s a problem that needs hydrologists and meteorologists. Until then, all of the downstream small communities are going to continue to get flooded.”
Pittsburgh’s sewer system capacity is particularly concerning.
A stormwater report from the RAND Corp. found that 11 billion gallons of water overflowed from Pittsburgh’s sewers from 2004 to 2013, a number 15 percent greater than estimated.
And with the amount of average annual rainfall increasing, sewer overflow could be 15 to 40 percent higher in the next decade, says Jordan Fischbach, the report’s author and co-director of RAND’s Water & Climate Resilience Center.
This could shorten the amount of time people can spend in the rivers, and could signal a serious issue of public health if there’s an increase in sanitary sewer overflows, which release untreated sewage from the system.
Local climate experts worry that residents will have to bail out their basements several times a year from sewer system backups, unless municipalities put into place green infrastructure that can absorb and redirect stormwater before it clogs the system.
What is the most effective way a municipality in Allegheny County can handle excess stormwater?
Mr. Samaras says adding green infrastructure can cool down a neighborhood and suck up pollution and flood-water, which could trickle to downstream communities at an alarming rate.
A recent Army Corps of Engineers study predicted that stream flows in the eastern part of the Ohio River Basin – including Pittsburgh – will increase by up to 50 percent in the next few decades, which will challenge the stormwater management systems in communities like Millvale, where 90 to 95 percent of water that flows through the local stream comes from outside the borough’s borders.
“The city is certainly pushing forward on these techniques, this green infrastructure, but there’s resistance from other portions of the area,” Mr. Fischbach says. “As one big connected system of 83 municipalities, it makes it tougher and more complicated to do this in a regional, systematic way.”
The complex maze of municipality borders and watershed maps is a big challenge to the regional fight against climate change, but no matter what – from the experts at Carnegie Mellon, to the offices of Sustainable Pittsburgh, to Millvale’s borough building – there’s a consensus that communities should be preparing for climate change right now.
“It’s not like you ‘believe’ in gravity. Climate change is not something you ‘believe’ in or don’t, if you’re being intellectually honest,” Mr. Gould says. “We have to move to, ‘what can we do?’”
Pittsburgh’s rainiest day ever dumped 5.95 inches on the city. That’s more rain than Pittsburgh gets in most months. What weather event was responsible?
In the next few decades, Zaheen Hussain’s hometown of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, could be underwater – victim of a rising sea.
Now he’s in Millvale to make sure the Allegheny Riverfront borough stays above water.
The 29-year-old has been the borough’s sustainability coordinator since late 2015, tasked with continuing its EcoDistrict plan – a community-wide collaboration to prepare for a more sustainable future. Mr. Hussain is on the front line of Millvale’s effort to be resilient against whatever the climate brings, a fight that started about 10 years ago after its second huge flood in a few years.
In August 2007, engineers descended into Girty’s Run — the six-mile stream that runs through the borough’s main business district on its way to the Allegheny River — to clear 20 years of debris and shore up the edges, restoring it to its original depth level. To borough officials, the effort was a few years too late.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan ravaged Millvale, flooding hundreds of homes and drenching its central business district with enough water to rise above the parking meters on North Avenue. It was only a matter of time before it would happen again, and it did. One week in 2007 brought back-to-back heavy rains to the town of about 3,700 residents, and another rush of stormwater to basements and businesses.
After Hurricane Ivan pummeled Millvale in 2004, President George W. Bush foreshadowed the town’s response to the devastation.
“There is a future,” the president said, speaking on the ground in Millvale. “I predict to you, [Mayor James Burn], that within a reasonable period of time this town is going to be back on its feet, better than ever, more hopeful than ever.”
Since Millvale amped up its fight against the storms, its creek hasn’t flooded. Its business district, once damaged by flooding, is revitalized. While surrounding communities battle flooding, rain comes and goes in Millvale without incident, an immediate reward for the community’s effort to prepare for an uncertain future.
“In probably a dozen communities in Allegheny County — when there’s high volume rains in a short amount of time — the creeks that run through them start overflowing their banks and affecting their residents and business districts,” says James Machajewski, Millvale council president and deputy fire chief. “We would have been in the same boat.”
What was once a palpable fear of being at the end of the Girty’s Run watershed is now an opportunity. The borough installed raingardens and bioswales, helping to absorb the runoff and slow the amount of rainwater that gets into the storm sewer system. It passed a floodplain ordinance tightening guidelines on construction. And it’s pursuing a grant to collect air quality data in town, with the goal of connecting it to a water tower as a public display of how safe it is to be outside.
Allegheny County is in the top 2 percent nationally of instances of cancer caused by air pollutants from industry, energy production and diesel vehicles. Millvale has a higher cancer rate per 100,000 residents than Allegheny County.
The library and community center are both 100 percent solar-powered. With 96 solar panels producing about 35,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year, the community center could serve as a haven during a catastrophic weather event.
“One day we hope to be able to create a network in which there’s ever a disaster scenario, where the grid goes down, we’d be able to unplug from the grid,” Mr. Hussain says, “and from the community center, run fully off solar and provide basic shelter services and municipal operations.”
For Millvale officials, climate change isn’t the main motivator behind its sustainable practices – at least not publicly. Mr. Hussain says residents have bought into green infrastructure, renewable energy and sustainability because it is simply good for the economy and for public health. Businesses in the town’s main corridor – once fearful of flooding – are now prepared; Millvale has 17 sustainable businesses designated through the state’s Sustainable Business Designation Program, the second-most of any municipality in Western Pennsylvania.
In connecting sustainability practices to the future of the economy, Millvale officials also aim to create jobs, in a town that has a youth poverty rate of nearly 50 percent and 12.8 percent unemployment. When the borough installed the community center’s solar panels, it ran a fellowship program to teach teenagers about what job opportunities there are in renewable energy. Mr. Hussain says he wants to run fellowships for all of Millvale’s environmental projects, and connect adults to jobs in the field.
“People think that growing out of previous industries, it’s an environment versus jobs debate,” Mr. Hussain says. “When really, it’s an environment and jobs debate. The more we can show that to people, the better it is for our community, our economy and our country.”
But in a town that is downstream like Millvale, collaboration with upstream communities is imperative. Nearly all of the water that flows through Girty’s Run into Millvale is from outside the borough's borders.
“It’s not just Millvale’s problem. It’s larger,” says Ms. Comfort of the University of Pittsburgh. “Right until that problem is recognized as such, whatever little steps Millvale does is just going to be trying to avoid the next major flood.”
But avoiding the next major flood has united the community and kickstarted collaboration. A few years after the floods, the borough’s leadership council turned over, replacing members who were on board for more than two decades. The new council formed better relationships with the North Hills Council of Governments, and collaboration with Ross and Shaler townships forged a better understanding of how Girty’s Run could be managed.
“People here, politically, are pretty conservative,” Mr. Hussain says. “But because there’s so many people who suffered through the ‘04 and ‘07 floods, everyone understands the importance of sustainable development by virtue of the shared trauma everyone experienced back then.
Here it’s not political. Here, sustainability is about the survival of the town.”
Are you enjoying this special report? If you are, consider subscribing.
Support journalism. Subscribe today.
If you are a loyal subscriber, thank you for your support.
What do people around the globe currently consider to be the greatest threat to their country’s national security?
Americans have a complicated relationship with climate change.
More than a quarter of them think climate scientists don’t understand the causes of climate change – even though an assessment of more than 9,000 scientific publications in 2013 found, with 95 percent certainty, that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming. And in that Pew study, just 56 percent of Americans identified climate change as a serious threat to the country, a rate lower than 25 other countries.
But there’s something different about the way Pittsburghers think, and the stark difference between that and residents of neighboring regions is startling.
Data shows that Allegheny County appears to be one of the only counties in the entire Ohio River Basin that is highly concerned about climate change. Of the 463 counties over the 10 states that make up the basin, Allegheny County has the highest rate of residents who think global warming will start to harm people in the U.S. now or within 10 years. Its residents also say they are somewhat or very worried about global warming at a rate second-highest in the basin.
This helps the city of Pittsburgh in its battle against climate change, as the fight can be more public and more sustained. For one, Pittsburgh has a plan – its OnePGH plan – to make it more resilient and green. It has goals; by 2030, Mayor Bill Peduto wants the city to run entirely off renewable electricity, cut down on its energy consumption and water use and divert all its waste from landfills. And it has its challenges; with more than 90 miles of rivers and 2,000 miles of streams, an increase in precipitation will only put more pressure on the city to address its illegal sewer overflow into the three rivers, which has been scrutinized by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“In Pittsburgh, we’re having 100-year rains on a constant basis as well. But we don’t have shorelines, we have riverfronts,” Mr. Peduto said at an environmental event in September. “We have hills that fall down and fall to the ground. We have people who have lost their lives sitting at a traffic signal as the water has raced up so fast, they had no way to get out of their automobile.”
Pittsburgh certainly has received attention nationally. After President Donald Trump cited Pittsburgh in his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, the mayor pushed back hard, and Pittsburgh was lauded as a leader at the forefront of resilience efforts – though it was already a part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, a partnership to prepare cities for climate change.
This is the same city that was one of the first in the nation to hire its own chief resilience officer – someone to directly oversee sustainability.
That’s Grant Ervin, and a day in his office Downtown is like going to a college class; there are whiteboards on the wall that list the “stressors” and “shocks” that could potentially affect the city. Copies of reports are strewn across tables. His staff has been working on Pittsburgh’s third climate action plan, which is currently being reviewed by city council.
Staffers on Mr. Ervin’s team frequently share television news videos with each other, depicting weather events and public health issues. Flooding on Streets Run Road. Homewood residents talking about their struggles with asthma.
“These issues are hitting the news, and not one of them are saying climate change,” says Mr. Ervin. “Nobody is kind of equating the connection between these increasing incidents of events that are making the 6 o’clock news, or the common conversation in a community meeting, and taking it two steps further to say, ‘wait a second, our precipitation patterns are changing. Our air quality is changing.’”
Those on the front lines of preparing their communities for an uncertain environmental future have had to frame the issue delicately, as to not come across as overtly political. Even in liberal-leaning areas like Pittsburgh, officials sometimes aim to present their action plans to residents as a playbook for improving public health, helping people save money and making communities fairer and prettier. At the least, community leaders tell residents they are working to improve their communities while also fighting climate change.
That’s certainly the case in Millvale, where Mr. Hussain says he's “lost a lot of people” talking about climate change, which he calls the “biggest anthropological global issue of our time.”
But framed under a different lens, the discussion thrives and locals are engaged.
“Millvale is not some sort of liberal bastion that we might connect sustainability efforts to,” Mr. Hussain says. “People in Millvale believe in sustainability and environmental responsibility because we've all seen what can happen if we don’t act in that way.”
Local climate experts worry the country is heading in the wrong direction on environmental issues, as Mr. Trump is a known skeptic of climate science. Just this week his administration scrapped the Clean Power Plan, his predecessor’s effort to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Mr. Gould says says this all reminds him of a Joel W. Pett cartoon that has become a favorite among the environmentally-conscious.
Faced with a future of rising temperatures and increased flooding, community leaders and climate experts say the time is now to prepare locally, and even though the fight against climate change sometimes requires sensitivity, it’s happening all around the city.
It isn’t simply an environmental issue. It’s an economic issue. A social issue. A quality of life issue. An “everything” issue in Pittsburgh and abroad, says Mr. Gould.
“This is amongst the biggest challenges facing humanity collectively in history, to date,” says Mr. Gould. “The irony is, it’s a problem of our making. Therein, it’s a problem within our ability to solve. The time is short. The urgency is great.”
Photography Andrew Rush
Design, Development, Graphics Zack Tanner
Data research Christopher Huffaker