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December 18, 2014

Study predicts more climate-related blackouts

Climate change now joins hurricanes as a threat for causing more power outages for businesses and residents in major East Coast cities in the future, a new John Hopkins University study found.

The study looked at the vulnerability to blackouts of cities, including Hartford, Conn., and Providence, R.I., which ranked fifth and eighth out of the Top 10, by marrying historic hurricane information with plausible scenarios for future storm behavior.

The Johns Hopkins team pinpointed 27 cities, from Texas to Maine, that will become more susceptible to blackouts from future hurricanes and possible factors related to climate change.

New York and Philadelphia topped the list.

Maine did not make it into the Top 10, according to the study, which appeared in the December issue of the journal Climatic Change. That's because the researchers focused on cities with more than 1 million people, Andrea Staid, lead author of the study and an environmental engineering PhD student at Johns Hopkins, told Mainebiz in a telephone interview.

Staid said there are a lot of uncertainties in planning for climate-change impacts. But scientists do know that hurricanes can extract more energy from warmer ocean waters.

And while Maine still remains low on the list of susceptible areas to hurricanes, in the future if hurricanes move further north due to climate change, and if they intensify in strength and area because of warming waters, Maine may face a bigger risk, she said. The study did not consider sea level rise or nor'easters, she added.

"Right now the risk in Maine is lower than Providence, because Maine is protected by geography such as Cape Cod and it is further north," Staid said. "But if hurricanes become more intense, all coastal areas will become more sensitive to power outages."

Being able to anticipate power outages and reinforce power grids can help cities. Staid said utility companies may decide to install stronger poles made of cement instead of wood, put in more underground power lines and/or raise the elevation of power substations.

Staid said the next step in the study is to use climate projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to try to look at impacts at various times in the future, such as 10 years or 20 years out.

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