By Archie Milligan
We regularly see news headlines that use phrases such as, ‘Unprecedented Hurricanes’ and ‘Hurricane leaves unprecedented damage’. However, many of these stories don’t address the outstanding risks associated with areas affected by natural disasters. They overlook the fact that across the globe we are moving into zones of hazard and building in already vulnerable areas, increasing loss of life and damage to property. This is a monumental miscommunication with far-reaching consequences, because it directs our attention away from effective solutions and neglects to hold policy-makers accountable for ensuring the safety of citizens.
Environmental journalist and author, Andrew Revkin, has highlighted that we are consistently building vulnerability into our communities and creating a landscape of risk. He expresses that where we build and how we build are significant factors in determining the magnitude of losses we regularly see from natural disasters.
Climate change is worsening the effects of natural climatic events, such as tropical storms, flooding, fires and tidal surges. However, alongside climate change, we are facing a climate vulnerability crisis. The areas commonly affected by climate events have significant implicit risks that predate climate change, yet we continue to develop and populate these areas at an alarming rate.
Beth Tellman and her colleagues at Cloud to Street – an organisation pioneering satellite flood tracking – conducted a study showing that we are moving into zones of hazard, particularly areas prone to flooding. The data indicates that in both rich places and poor places, we continue to move into zones of hazard faster than climate is changing. Using satellite imagery, they’ve estimated that between 2000 and 2015, the total population in locations with satellite-observed inundation grew by 58-86 million. This indicates an increase of 20-24 percent in the proportion of the world’s population that is exposed to flooding.
Regarding tropical storms, paleotempestologists, such as Joanne Muller, have looked for evidence of hurricanes along developed coastlines of the USA and Puerto Rico. Their results show a thousand year history of hurricanes that point out where in the landscape big hurricanes are regularly occurring. From this, we learn that while extreme hurricanes remain rare on human timescales, they are actually the norm on geological and climatological timescales. So, in regions such as Florida, we see what could be described as ‘designed disasters’, as they will continue to experience hurricanes and tropical storms.
Consider this: in 1940, there were approximately 600,000 homes in Florida. Today, there are around 10,000,000 homes – 17 times as many – over a period of 80 years. This precipitates the catastrophic levels of damage we see when category 5 hurricanes come ashore, such as hurricane Michael in 2018. The unprecedented nature of the damage we see can largely be attributed to the fact that more communities now exist in areas vulnerable to such climate events. Additionally, it is also important to note that hurricanes are expected to become more severe due to climate change.
We see more examples of these designed vulnerabilities around the world. In Pakistan, many millions of people live in the floodplain of the Indus river. In the United States, a century of fire suppression has meant that many forested areas prone to burning as part of their natural cycles are now heavily developed. Regions like Boulder, Colorado have seen wildfires ravaging communities as the effects of bad land management, human development and climate change interact for devastating consequences. The reality of building in abundance in areas of implicit risk means that there will inevitably be loss of life and property damage when climate (or seismic) events occur.
Consequently, we come to the question: what can we do to ensure that people are safeguarded from climate events in the future? When we understand that we have created a landscape of risk by building vulnerability into our communities, we give ourselves the opportunity to make a difference by addressing this problem. We know that today’s coasts will not be tomorrow’s coasts, we know what areas are vulnerable to climate and seismic events, and we know how to design better.
There are many things we can do that will have an immediate impact on people suffering today by addressing vulnerability. In many countries we should be building more homes in areas that are not vulnerable to climate events. Other policies include: improved communication of the risks from natural hazards so those in vulnerable areas understand the dangers, evacuation plans that focus on relocating the most vulnerable communities during climate events, and housing regulations that factor in the risks associated with building in vulnerable locations. Importantly, housing regulations that incorporate the costs of vulnerabilities can help adjust our incentives for living and building in such regions, and can ensure construction is mindful of the implications. These are simple, cost effective ways that reduce vulnerability and consider the environment when developing land.
It is vital that we remember that these things are important when addressing the question of how to make sure that people are safer in the future.
Lastly, it is important to note that addressing the level of atmospheric CO2 is a crucial long term goal that cannot be avoided, as this is ultimately the main driver of climate change which will worsen the damages from climate events. However, as a lever of control its effects will be felt after many decades, we also need to pay attention to these other policies that will have an immediate effect for people suffering today.
L. Fridman Podcast #339, “Climate Change Debate: Bjorn Lomborg and Andrew Revkin”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Gk9gIpGvSE&ab_channel=LexFridman, accessed: 18/11/2022
B. Tellman et al, “Satellite imaging reveals increased proportion of population exposed to floods”, Nature 596, 80-86, 4/8/2021
T. Knutson, “Global Warming and Hurricanes: An Overview of Current Research Results”, GFDL, https://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/global-warming-and-hurricanes/, 29/12/2022, accessed: 18/1/2023
C. Morris, “‘Unprecedented’ Hurricane Michael Barrels Toward Florida: When and Where Will It Hit?”, Fortune, 10/10/2018, https://fortune.com/2018/10/10/hurricane-michael-projected-path-florida/, accessed: 10/1/23
M. Gannon, “Hurricane Michael Strengthens to ‘Unprecedented’ Category 4 Storm Overnight”, LiveScience, 10/10/2018, https://www.livescience.com/63793-hurricane-michael-category-4-florida.html, accessed: 10/1/23
R. Mckay and B. O’Brien, “Nicole leaves ‘unprecedented’ building damage along part of Florida coast’, Reuters, 11/11/2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/storm-nicole-drenches-georgia-carolinas-after-wreaking-destruction-florida-2022-11-11/, accessed: 25/1/2023J. Wendel, “Unprecedented Hurricane Season Sees Widespread Damage”, Eos, 22/9/2017, https://eos.org/articles/unprecedented-hurricane-season-sees-widespread-damage, accessed: 25/1/2023