About 125 miles west of Portland as the crow flies, the streets of Montpelier and other Vermont communities were underwater Tuesday morning. Catastrophic, life-threatening flooding spread through the region late Monday, causing untold damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Northeast Flooding

A kayaker paddles across Main Street in downtown Barre, Vt., on Monday night, after life-threatening flooding spread through the region. Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/The Times Argus via AP

The deluge in the Northeast is the latest of this summer’s weather-related crises in the United States, closely following well-documented periods of crippling, record-breaking heat and dangerous, smoky air.

Events like these are effective at stirring up national conversation and concern about climate change. The trick, however, is keeping that conversation and that concern up when life appears to be continuing as “normal.”

If people must drown while rescuing dogs and houses must be washed clean off their foundations or burned to their studs in order to spur meaningful focus on climate change – an existential threat taking shape gradually – all hope is lost.

Even when horrifying weather events aren’t dominating news headlines and stoking alarm, our world is warming. Our weather systems are becoming more extreme and less predictable. We are likely more than halfway through the warmest year since instrument records started in the 19th century.

With many roads impassable, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott followed a snowmobile trail to work Tuesday morning. “We are not out of the woods,” Scott said in a news conference, cautioning that the sunshine of Tuesday and Wednesday would be followed by more rain that could not be absorbed by still-saturated ground. “This is nowhere near over, and at this phase our primary focus continues to be on life and safety before we can shift into a recovery phase.”


The phase the U.S. needs to be permanently in, of course, is one of climate change mitigation and resilience.

Despite all of the data and all of the clamor, Tuesday’s extreme flooding in Vermont and New York also exposed the depth of our unpreparedness; as The New York Times reported Tuesday, “the country lacks a comprehensive, current, national precipitation database,” a resource that could inform us about the precise threats posed by torrential rain.

How can this still be?

Easy. Even though “denialism” has mostly receded from view – “… dead,” declared Washington Post columnist Philip Bump in a July 7 column, “immolated in 110-degree heat or asphyxiated on wildfire smoke or drowned in a flash flood” – too many of us, and too many administrative bodies, still regard climate change in the abstract.

Too often it’s an “over there” issue. Maine real estate agents are quick to speak warmly of how attractive housing and land will be here, as places more susceptible to the vagaries of global warming than our state become all but unlivable. The same, of course, might be occasionally said of somewhere like Barre, Vermont, which was among the towns to be submerged in floodwater this week.

We’re happy to talk about “climate migrants” of the far-off future and grimly less able to recognize the hard truth: this movement of people and resources is already well under way.


A study just released this week by researchers at Northwestern University for the first time quantified the effects of climate change underground, and what those effects do to civil infrastructure. Heat warps the ground, according to the study, which destabilizes buildings. An “it could be you” message crept into reporting on the study’s findings. “You don’t need to live in Venice to live in a city that is sinking,” the lead researcher said in an interview.

American meteorologists have been using the word “stuck” to describe the weather patterns that have dominated this summer so far. “Stuck” was also used in a Press Herald column by climate scientist Susana Hancock on Tuesday.

“Rapid warming in the north weakens the air current, enabling it to become more wobbly, leading to stalled weather systems,” Hancock explained. “As the Arctic continues to outpace the rate of generalized planetary warming, these persistent jet stream disturbances, and the stuck weather patterns they cause, are likely to be more common.”

Stuck. Common. Not extraordinary. So, at all times, we better act like it.

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