Dave Helling

Think the snow was a headache in KC? Try climate change for 100 years

Snow-packed roads slow Monday morning commute in Kansas City

Snow-packed roads from a blizzard that dumped 5.8" of snow at Kansas City International Airport on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018 slowed the Monday morning commute throughout the metro-area.
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Snow-packed roads from a blizzard that dumped 5.8" of snow at Kansas City International Airport on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018 slowed the Monday morning commute throughout the metro-area.

Some of Kansas City’s downtown streets were still slick and ice-covered Tuesday, 48 hours after a snowstorm clipped the area.

Residential streets were still icy, too. Bitterly cold temperatures turned slush back into ice, forcing some schools to close and commuters to struggle. City crews tried to scrape the mess away. “Patience is appreciated,” the city tweeted Monday.

City Hall reported 527 calls and complaints between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tuesday.

That seems relatively low. Kansas Citians are generally happy with the way snow and ice are cleared from the streets, at least according to citizen surveys, and it didn’t snow very much.

Snow removal is a fascinating political issue. Complainers jammed the City Hall phones in 2000 when a major ice and snow storm struck. People, it turns out, get quite angry when the streets go unplowed for days.

At the same time, no one wants to spend millions of dollars on snow removal when it isn’t needed. A snowplow is only necessary a couple of times a year, Kansas City politicians know, even under the worst of circumstances.

So local bigwigs walk a weird path when planning for snow and ice events: Be prepared, but not too prepared.

In the years ahead, lawmakers may not have that luxury. The world’s climate is changing in life-altering ways.

That’s clear when you read the just-released Fourth National Climate Assessment — the one foolishly rejected by President Donald Trump. “Future climate change is expected to further disrupt many areas of life,” it says, “exacerbating existing challenges to prosperity posed by aging and deteriorating infrastructure, stressed ecosystems and economic inequality.”

Climate change isn’t about a few inconvenient snow storms.

In fact, there may be much less snow in our future. In the northern Great Plains, “the fraction of total water in precipitation that falls as snow is expected to decline by 25 percent to 40 percent by 2100,” the assessment says.

But climate change will bring extreme events like floods and tornadoes. And drought: The decline in winter snow will drain creeks and rivers, leading to water shortages in cities like Kansas City.

That’s the background for the crucial decisions local politicians will make over the next two decades. Does Kansas City buy new plows to improve snow removal or spend more on planting shade trees for hotter summers? Should pavement be designed to resist winter potholes or summer buckling?

More winter shelters — or swimming pools? How we understand climate change will affect the answers to these questions, and others like them.

It’s quite a list. But make no mistake: Planning for the competing demands of climate change will make a post-Thanksgiving snowstorm look like a meteorological hiccup.

Add these issues to the growing agenda for next year’s city elections. Candidates will hear complaints about snow removal, of course. But they’ll also need to talk about the climate change catastrophe that’s now here, and its affect on the way we live, once the ice melts.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.