Hurricane Sandy

Let me start by saying this month’s EarthCare looks at two pretty depressing news items from the week and is intended to make you think, rather than be entertained.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy from the Caribbean to Canada shows the fury that nature can unleash.  My first thoughts are for those suffering, especially in the highly populated areas such as New York.  I do hope our Federal government will, in a spirit of cooperation, send experts to assist.

Directly quantifying the extent global warming has played in the strength of Sandy is difficult, if not imposable, however what scientists have been predicting is that global warming will intensify the force of extreme weather events and make them less predictable regarding time and place.  Sandy is consistent with these predictions in regards to:

  • Strength; Sandy is one of the strongest hurricanes to hit USA.
  • Time; the US hurricane season is all but over, and
  • Place: large hurricanes are not expected to travel as far north as New York City.

The situation on the ground in New York is desperate with subways, underpasses and car-parks flooding and roads turning into torrents of water.  The severity is due to the combination of pluvial1 flooding, and importantly, storm surges generated by the strong winds.  Future days may see problems from fluvial2 flooding, especially to communities built on floodplains.  This scenario is very similar to the devastating floods in Queensland at Christmas 2010.

In planning for the effects of global warming simple bath-tub (bathometric) flooding plans are totally inadequate. Actual damage and threat to life stems from the storm’s power, driving the ocean onto the land overwhelming our storm water systems with backpressure at the very time they need to clear rain water.  Simultaneously the rivers our cities are built on start to flood due to rain in the catchment areas.

How do societies deal with such threats?  There are two ways.  Firstly, assessment of infrastructure and how it can be managed to cope with severe storms.  We need to be smarter in the way we plan our cities and communities.  Risk assessments need to be undertaken and areas designated by their risk profile.  This can be controversial as nobody wants to be told they live in an at-risk place, if nothing else the value of their land or home would probably drop, but these assessments need to be done to stop further development in vulnerable locations.  Natural barriers need to be encouraged and used to the fullest.  Hard engineering was once the fall back solution, but sea walls and the like present a double jeopardy, because should they fail the impacts will be much worse than if they did not exist at all.  Yes seawalls have their place, but need to be very well engineered and used primarily to protect existing infrastructure.  The second way of dealing with natural disasters is to have a strong community.  We are already hearing that the strong communities of Upper West Side, Soho and Queens are pulling together to beat this threat.  It’s understandable that the ensuing days and weeks will be very hard for the communities that have been affected, those that come out of it least scarred psychologically and ready to live another day will be the ones that have a strong community spirit.  People who do not know who their neighbours are and live insular lives are in communities that will take longer to recover.

The other piece of prominent news, which is much less dramatic, but promises to adversely affect a very large number of Australians are the results of the huge vertical study on body mass and exercise.  The conclusion is that obesity and overweight is escalating in Australia and that while you should exercise, that is only going to help, not cure the adverse effects of being overweight.

The connection between these two issues is that they are both the result of lifestyle factors and exacerbated by our consumer culture.  Consuming fats, salt and sugars affects our personal health and consuming fossil fuels affects our planet’s health.  While it’s appropriate we feel concern for those affected by these two pieces of news, it’s also appropriate we learn from them by modifying our lifestyles and building community capital.


1             Pluvial:                 Water affecting an area from rain

2             Fluvial:                 Water affecting an area from rivers and flooding

Published in Fremantle Herald 3rd November 2012

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