Eric Zuniga, Campus Carrier deputy news editor
A number of severe thunderstorms have caused damage and disruption on Berry’s campus in recent weeks. High winds caused by a thunderstorm on March 3 shut off power and knocked down many trees, blocking road access before spring break. Another storm on April 1, with wind gusts of nearly 50 miles per hour, also uprooted several trees. On April 8, a storm that downed powerlines left some portions of Mountain Campus without electricity for three hours.
These storms have developed amidst an unusually warm start to the year in Georgia. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations, average temperatures during January, February and March were their highest in 129 years, raising concerns about the potential effects of climate change on a global scale as a whole. Although it is difficult to attribute individual storms to climate change, Zachary Taylor, associate professor of environmental science, said that climate change may make for more frequent and more severe storms.
“There’s two different questions that are related—will we see more, or we will see more severe?” Taylor said. “It’s possible they can become more. More severe things are probably going to become even more common.”
This may mean that more routine events like thunderstorms, which are usually thought of as less severe than tornadoes, could become more dangerous and damaging in the future, according to Taylor.
“Maybe you get a big thunderstorm like this, or a hurricane that hits that is much more likely to be strong now because the hurricanes don’t weaken as they get to the coast because the water’s warmer,” Taylor said. “The biggest two tree-downing events on campus were not tornadoes. They were just these severe thunderstorms.”
Taylor suggested that the potential for stronger, more frequent storms may require changes in the way weather warnings are communicated. The severe thunderstorm warning issued by the National Weather Service for the March 3 storm indicated the potential for tornadoes, wind gusts of 70 miles per hour and considerable tree damage in Floyd County. Despite the warning, Berry did not activate alerts or alarms or preemptively, something that Taylor said was extremely concerning.
“It seems like that Friday before spring break, it would have been prudent to send out an email or something and be like, ‘hey, the weather forecast does not look good; we’re anticipating severe weather,’ because there were all kinds of alerts and warnings,” Taylor said.
According to Gary Will, assistant vice president for campus safety and land management, Berry alerts are issued and sirens on campus are activated only when there is a tornado warning in effect for the area.
“We issue our Berry Alerts when it’s tornadic activity, when there’s a tornado warning,” Will said. “That’s when the sirens go off. That’s when there is a Berry Alert that goes, is when there is a tornado warning for our area. We will continue to be doing that in the future.”
Will said that there are not any current plans being made to change this policy, adding that Berry alerts are intended to be reserved for the most serious situations.
“It might change; it may not — I don’t know. If there’s a discussion among the people here in Hermann Hall and believe that should change, then we’ll make a change,” Will said. “When we issue Berry alerts, we want you, the student body to say, ‘oh, there’s a Berry alert, there must be something serious going on.’ As far as a tornado watch or warning, they’re serious.”
According to Will, Berry’s current alert systems and damage response procedures are well equipped with the capability mitigate the harms of inclement weather.
“I would think that we have everything in place that is needed to warn people,” Will said. “I’m just an observer, but [Physical Plant] has proved that they can do what needs to be done when trees come down.”
Physical Plant staff did not respond to requests for an interview.
In the event that a damaging severe storm does strike campus, Will said that campus safety first prioritizes clearing roads and restoring power to allow emergency vehicles access to any injured people. This would in turn prevent more injuries and would allow for more efficient return of power and cleanup.
“I don’t know what the percentages are, but clearing roads and then power are the two priorities at that time,” Will said. “That kind of goes hand in hand as far as clearing the roads and treating the injured people.”
The number of trees downed by these recent storms, and the proximity of trees to many buildings on campus, also raises concerns about the potential for serious damage to buildings. According to Will, Berry retains the services of an arborist who evaluates possible tree safety issues.
“Berry has an arborist on retainer — they will frequently walk around and look at trees, to see maybe they’re getting old, maybe they’re dead, maybe they are dying; what’s the threat to a building or somebody,” Will said. “I think that’s an ongoing process.”
Will added that campus safety is working on incorporating alarm systems that allow those indoors to receive the same warnings signaled by outdoor sirens into every building on campus. This system only exists in McAllister currently.
“When we are redoing fire alarms now, we are incorporating that technology in every building,” Will said. “When there’s new fire alarms going on, in the future not only will you hear it outside, you will hear it inside. The purpose of the sirens outside, that’s to get people inside a building for whatever the event’s going on.”
More severe and more frequent inclement weather is not the only challenge that climate change poses for Berry’s campus. According to Taylor, increased average temperatures may make it unsafe for people to work or spend large amounts of time outside for many days in the summer.
“A lot of students aren’t here in the summer, but there might be more days that it’s not super safe to be outside doing all the stuff we have students do—mowing lawns, and working on grounds,” Taylor said. “There may just be some afternoons that might just not be something we can do in the relatively near future.”
Warmer temperatures and rising sea levels could also make severe water issues like droughts and floods more common, according to Taylor.
“Certainly, things like droughts and floods are probably more likely,” Taylor said. “We’ve had several storms really drop some pretty severe [rain]. The one we had [on April 8] was a pretty good storm. It closed the road, that kind of stuff. Those are probably likely to get somewhat more common.”
Taylor said that more common droughts could pose problems for Berry’s water supply, provided completely by a reservoir on Mountain Campus, which has run low in the past.
“One of the years I was here it rained like in July — the fourth of July it rained, and then it didn’t rain,” Taylor said. “It just didn’t rain that whole fall and the reservoir was getting pretty low, and they were like, ‘ok, we need to be thinking hard about how we use our water and stuff, because we’ve got to keep this going until it rains.’”
Taylor added that such events may become more frequent with climate change.
“Georgia’s always had droughts, so maybe every 20 years the reservoir would run out of water — I’m making these numbers up — but maybe under climate change it’s every five years,” Taylor said.
According to Taylor, the most important consideration for climate change mitigation is adequate planning for disruptive events.
“Your overall thesis here with climate change is these problems are probably slightly more likely in the future, which just makes it more important that we have a good plan, whatever that is,” Taylor said.