How a Changing Climate is Changing Pittsburgh

Climate change has been affecting life in Pittsburgh visibly in recent years.

(Megan Shandel//Multimedia Editor at Sentry Media)

Climate change has been affecting life in Pittsburgh visibly in recent years.

 Humans have been altering their environment for thousands of years to suit their needs: changing the land, farming, and building cities. However, in recent human history, this practice has been dramatically expanded, and its effects have gone beyond improving life. 

Climate change is nothing new: the First National Climate Assessment was published in 2000. However, it has long been believed to be an issue to address in the future (if at all) and thus has only been exacerbated. The effects are currently being felt across the planet, and science shows that it is only going to get worse.

The primary effect of climate change is the intensification of already-existing weather patterns. Ward Allebach, an instructor in The Department of Geology and Environmental Science at The University of Pittsburgh, says of the effects of climate change, “As weather patterns change they’re really getting more magnified. So out west, they’re having more heat, more droughts, more wildfires. Where we are we’re seeing more rain, more intense rain, more total rain, more periods of rain.”

The Rust Belt, a region of the United States covering all of Ohio, and stretching from eastern Illinois to western Pennsylvania and New York, has always received rain, but in recent years, the Rust Belt has received significantly more. Pittsburgh (which resides within this region) has recently experienced some of its wettest years on record. The increase in total rainfall has also come with more intense rainfall. This past summer, for example, several intense storms occurred in Pittsburgh due to the remaining strength of the tropical storms that have been happening in The Gulf of Mexico. Allebach adds, “[Hurricanes starting in the Gulf of Mexico] are still holding enough rain and intensity to impact us and Philadelphia.” 

Pittsburgh, and many other urban areas, are not equipped to handle this increase in rainfall and rain intensity. The system that these cities use to dispose of rainwater is called a combined sewage system. These systems require industrial waste, domestic waste, and rainfall to all use the same pipes to reach a water treatment plant. There, the water is treated and then released back into a body of water. However, when there is excess rainwater flowing into the system, by design, it overflows into bodies of water, mainly rivers. Thus, not only does the rainwater overflow into these bodies of water but so does raw, untreated sewage. This is extremely unsanitary, even when overflow was relatively uncommon. But with the increasing intensity of rainfall, it is occurring much more frequently, driving up the amount of sewage overflow in our rivers and other bodies of water.

Alcosan is the water treatment municipal authority for Pittsburgh. Their plan to improve infrastructure and reduce sewage overflow was approved, but climate change continues to worsen. This means Pittsburgh, and other cities as well will need to continue upgrading their infrastructure to keep up with the changes, requiring money, time, and the removal and replacement of old systems.

Fixing climate change is not only going to cost money and take time but will require that historically popular practices and processes be greatly reduced or eliminated, to establish new, more eco-friendly sewage systems. Allebach says of the challenges of implementing reforms, “No politician wants to raise taxes and say we have to do this and we have to do that. Instead, they kick the problem down the road.” 

He adds, “Politicians, energy generators, energy transmitters, energy users, all of these people have different agendas, and so to get them all on the same page is the only way to change the system. If one of these stakeholders is trying to change the system, but the others are working against them, it’s only going to make it worse, not better.”

As of now, it looks like the problem will be left to future generations. But, until then, grab an umbrella, because there is going to be a lot of rain.