Detroit residents observe a stretch of I-94 that is still under several feet of water following heavy weekend rains which flooded parts of Metro Detroit.
After a weekend of heavy storms beginning on Friday night and lasting through the weekend rainwater flooded parts of I-94 in Detroit, Michigan forcing some motorists to abandon their vehicles and seek shelter from the heavy rains. Flood waters remained in areas along I-94 between Dearborn and Downtown Detroit several days later as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer held a press conference on the still inundated I-94. Photo by Matthew Hatcher via Getty
Detroit residents observe a stretch of I-94 that is still under several feet of water following heavy weekend rains which flooded parts of Metro Detroit. After a weekend of heavy storms beginning on Friday night and lasting through the weekend rainwater flooded parts of I-94 in Detroit, Michigan forcing some motorists to abandon their vehicles and seek shelter from the heavy rains. Flood waters remained in areas along I-94 between Dearborn and Downtown Detroit several days later as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer held a press conference on the still inundated I-94.

If you have a feeling these storms have something to do with climate change, you’d be right.

CROSWELL, Mich.—There were so many DTE Energy workers in Michigan’s Thumb restoring power after heavy rain last week that a local bakery in Croswell made a special DTE pie.

“I ask to please show your kindness and careness for our lineman,” Homemade Pies by Kala wrote on Facebook. “Thank you to many of the lineman that are here from out of state, please offer them a cold drink or maybe some cookies. A kind gesture goes a long way!”

As to why so many DTE line workers were on duty, the bakery didn’t mince words.

“Once again these storms are out of control.”

And it’s far from the first time this season. While summer started rather dry in the Mitten, July and August have brought storms that repeatedly rocked the state. And that has got Michiganders reacting—some with pies, others with questions. 

Is it raining a lot, or what?

Not just rain. Michigan has also seen more tornadoes than Oklahoma this season. From 1991-2010, Oklahoma saw an average of 62 tornadoes a year compared to Michigan’s 16. This year, Michigan has already hit 15 following a confirmed tornado last week in Dorr. 

But the rains have been increasingly an issue too. Tracking their intensity through power outages, we can see the Midwest’s weather has been getting more extreme in the past 10 years. And it seems like a sunny day has become increasingly rare for the Great Lakes through the summer of 2021. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said that we’re in the second-wettest five-year period in recorded history in the Great Lakes. 

This isn’t, then, just a Michigan problem. The entire Great Lakes region has been seeing storms of increasing intensity and seeing them more often. Wisconsin has been getting hit just as hard, for instance. 

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What kind of damage has that rain done done?

To start with, as of 6:30 a.m. on Monday, more than 22,000 DTE Energy customers remained without power from last week’s heavy rains. Michigan’s other major energy provider, Consumers Energy, had 27,000 customers still without power. 

Nearly 1 million homes and businesses were dark at the peak of last week’s outages.

“Mother Nature delivered a powerful punch to Michigan,” Consumers Energy Vice President for Electric Operations Guy Packard said in a news release.

The companies pledged to finish power restoration during the day Monday, but that left tens of thousands of Michiganders in the balmy August heat for days without electricity. Many customers reported leaving their homes to escape the heat. Some communities opened cooling shelters.

But power outages weren’t the only damage from all that rain. 

Entire sections of road in Antrim County were washed out, streets in Traverse City were flooded, and stretches of I-94 and I-696 were closed in Detroit. While most of the closed interstate reopened quickly, standing water in some areas echoed serious flooding on Detroit-area highways earlier this summer.  

Some cities, like Sturgis, declared local states of emergency as a result of the severe storms’ damage to their community. 

Why is it happening?

Part of the reason is aging infrastructure. 

Michigan’s overall infrastructure was given a D+ grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2018. In terms of the state’s power grid specifically, Michigan got a C-. While faltering infrastructure obviously increases the chances of power outages, it also contributes to flooding. 

Preventing roads from being washed out or highways from flooding is an infrastructure challenge—one that humanity has gotten pretty good at overcoming, all things considered, thanks to innovations like pump stations and drain highways.

But in the heavy flooding in June that closed a portion of I-94 and left cars stranded, those pump stations lost power, causing the remaining active stations to become overwhelmed. Not only are the pump stations themselves part of Michigan’s infrastructure, but they rely on the power grid that scored an ignominious C-.

But the infrastructure concerns focus on managing the results of the severe storms. The cause of those storms is a separate issue, and a familiar one: climate change. 

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Wait, climate change? Really?

To get to the heart of the way climate change works to make our storms more severe, let’s follow a drop of water from where it evaporates to where it hits your windshield. 

Our water drop starts as part of the Atlantic Ocean, specifically in the Caribbean. From there, it does what water does: It evaporates and eventually joins a cloud. Now the cloud drifts north until it hits the superhighway of the water cycle, the jet stream. 

Almost all of Michigan’s weather is based on the jet stream’s flow. Rain tend to head west-to-east in Michigan because the slower fringes of the jet stream steadily push in that direction, high above the earth’s surface. Clouds traveling the jet stream continue gathering water from rivers, agriculture, and the Great Lakes themselves before crossing into Michigan. 

What makes a cloud rain is how heavy it becomes. As it cools in the jetstream, it gets to a point where water no longer can stay evaporated in the cloud; this is called the dew point. When that happens, it rains. Our Caribbean drop of water forms again as a liquid and falls with millions of others onto your windshield, to get sloshed away by wiper blades. 

Because the cloud has to reach a dew point to rain, warmer air means clouds can collect even more water. That’s also why summers are more humid than winters—the hotter it is, the heavier the air can be without hitting a dew point. 

And that’s how climate change enters the equation. 

“As the climate does change—usually it’s a type of gradual change—we increase our chance of probabilities of extreme or short-term storms,” Michigan State University climatology professor Jeffrey Andresen told Fox 2 Detroit. “The warmer air can hold more vapor, so there’s always more potential for extreme events.”

He went on to explain that for every degree Celsius that global temperature goes up, the amount of rain that clouds can hold increases by roughly 10%. That means droughts in some parts of the country and deluges in others. 

Well, what can we do about the rains and floods?

We not only need to update Michigan’s power grid to stay up and running through severe weather but to improve our other infrastructure as well. While improving the power grid would make outages rarer and less severe, they would still happen. So would floods. 

In those cases, we also have to make things like roads and highways more resistant to flood damage. Earlier this year, The ‘Gander explained how a design called a “geogrid” in a road’s embankment can help it withstand flood damage. 

Similar precautions could be made for power outages, making emergency backup power more commonplace on an individual, or even community, level. For instance, when Kalamazoo loses power as it did in the winter of 2011, Western Michigan University’s independent power grid was able to help support the community. It made the university “a beacon of safe harbor,” then-President John Dunn told college paper HerCampus

READ MORE: Here’s How Science and Infrastructure Projects Can Help Highways Recover Faster from Flooding

Can we do anything about climate change?

Well, we can make it easier on ourselves. By redoubling our efforts as a society to cut emissions and doing our part personally, we can limit how hot things are going to get and, consequently, how bad Michigan storms will get. 

But the notion that climate change is a looming threat in the future is outdated, and climate scientists have been saying so for a while now. These intense storms show clearly that it’s already here, impacting us today. We are living with the early repossessions of climate change, in the dark and hot power outages of summer 2021. It has, literally, hit home. 

We can’t prevent climate change from happening. And a lot of the next century’s changes are already baked in, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In a new report, the IPCC warned that things will definitely be getting worse

“Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia,” the authors of the report wrote. 

For places like the Great Lakes, that means wilder storms, more rain, and more flooding, at least for now. But in places like the Pacific Coast, that means more drought and wildfires so extreme they’re visible from New York City, impacting air quality continent-wide. People in New York City were breathing in Californian ash. 

That’s just our new normal, and even the better end of what we can expect, according to the IPCC findings. 

Is there something we can feel hopeful about?

There is. While it’s true that it’s too late to stop climate change, it’s not too late to survive it. 

Surviving it means both slowing its progress by drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in technologies and infrastructure that can help us resist the worst of what’s to come. 

Michigan is the 10th-highest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the United States. And most of that gas comes from gasoline-burning cars and coal-fired or gas-fired power plants. A strong pivot to electric cars and cleaner energy sources would drastically reduce Michigan’s emissions.

But for those changes that we’re seeing already, and those baked into the world’s future, the challenge becomes one of infrastructure and engineering. Creating a power grid with redundancies that can withstand intense storms or highways less likely to be damaged by flooding will become crucial in the coming years. 

As will adjusting daily routines. More extreme weather and heat will impact the lives of average Michiganders in a number of ways, like requiring people outdoors to carry cool water more often, or using public transportation when available to reduce personal emissions. Also, you’ll probably want a good umbrella for all that oncoming rain. Preparing for those changes could help smooth the transition.

Michiganders in the long term can probably expect the state to grow more crowded as well. As bad as recent storms have been, on a national scale Michigan is going to be rather lucky. As the west becomes even hotter and more arid, and cities on the oceanfront face disappearing into the sea, Michigan will be in a prime position to take in climate refugees from other parts of the nation. Plenty of freshwater and the natural heatsink of the Great Lakes leaves the Mitten a welcoming hand waving to the rest of the nation.

It’s not the ideal way to flex our Midwestern hospitality, but it’s a chance to do so that we should see coming by the end of the century. 

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