No, Kansas City will not escape climate change unscathed

Evan Musil

Illustration by Kaili JiMei

Sitting near the exact center of the country, Kansas City seems isolated from the extreme weather plaguing the coasts during this time of climate change. There are no shrinking shorelines to worry about nor forest fires due to the area’s humidity.

That doesn’t mean Kansas City is immune.

“Although the extreme isn’t right here in our backyard, is it going to affect us in some other way?” asks Doug Kluck, the Central Region climate service director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Often the case is yes.”

Some risks are simply side effects from greater outside calamities, such as smoke from the western United States and Canada drifting east and lowering the Midwest’s air quality. But Kansas City’s biggest concern could be from floods.

“The old adage ‘when it rains it pours’ is becoming more common,” Kluck says. “It’s getting worse from the frequency point. It’s happening more often.”

The 2018 National Climate Assessment estimates extreme rain events will be more recurrent in the Midwest and projects the amount of precipitation to surge by thirty percent at the end of the twenty-first century. In Missouri specifically, nearly sixty-two percent of the years between 1981 and 2019 saw above normal precipitation, according to data from the Missouri Climate Center.

As an urban center near the Missouri River, this rise in runoff could damage critical infrastructure in Kansas City such as bridges and buildings. It could also overwhelm the city’s combined sewer system, which then could release sewage and pollution overflow into streams and rivers.

In March, KC Water committed to implementing new green infrastructure as a way to curb destructive runoff. How its form of green infrastructure works seems simple: It guides stormwater into areas with soil and plants, allowing more water to soak into the ground naturally. One visible benefit is the greenery it grows.

“If you put a pipe in the ground, people don’t see it,” says Srini Vallabhaneni, the smart sewer officer at KC Water. “If we try to keep the flow management near the surface, we can create some natural environments.”

But specific spots have specific needs, Vallabhaneni says. Because of Daniel Morgan Boone Park’s combined sewer pipes and significant overflow to Town Fork Creek, KC Water is thinking of separating stormwater into a separate pipe that will collect water from about two hundred nearby acres. It’s a large project in the conceptualization stage, Vallabhaneni says, and green infrastructure needs to be consistently maintained to properly work.

KC Water’s green infrastructure also mainly focuses on reducing water pollution and improving quality, not flooding. “[For flood management], you need to have a lot of area to turn into green—an area that’s very challenging, almost impossible to do,” Vallabhaneni says. Green infrastructure is one smaller solution to a wider problem, he says.

More extreme heat is also likely in the cards. The area is expected to have a four-degree-increase in average temperature. It’ll feel even hotter in the city, where materials like concrete and brick absorb heat in what’s called the heat island effect. Add the thick humidity on top and it can be fairly dangerous to be outside.

Low-income areas are often hit hardest, where inefficient air conditioning leads to a higher percentage of income spent on energy. But energy use shoots up everywhere when it’s hot and humid. “Everyone has everything cranked up, and that of course contributes to the problem as long as we’re burning fossil fuels,” Kluck says. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Kansas City is currently updating its Climate Protection Plan, first implemented in 2008, to tighten its focus and shift toward resilience. “Nothing’s going to change, and we expect certain things to happen, so let’s now start planning for that,” says Andy Savastino, the city’s chief environmental officer.

The new plan will also address specific needs for high-risk neighborhoods, taking in feedback gathered by the city’s climate justice workers, Savastino says. An August study by UMKC and the Office of Environmental Quality aims to map the neighborhoods most vulnerable to the heat island effect.

The resulting data will guide solutions in the plan, he says. The updated Climate Protection and Resilience Plan is still in the early planning stages, but Savastino thinks planting more trees is one easy remedy. Trees bring shade in extreme heat and can fight the heat island effect. “I know leaves are a pain in the butt in the fall, but it’s a small price to pay for all the benefits you get during the rest of the year,” he says.

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