Adapting to the New Normal

16 Nov

After a drought-plagued summer and the recent havoc wrought by super storm Sandy, scientists, policymakers, and the public are looking for long-term strategies to minimize the damage caused by Mother Nature. Strictly speaking, there is not enough evidence to fault global warming for any one extreme weather event. However, scientists warn that as temperatures rise, we can expect to see these types of events occur with more frequency.

As the East Coast continues to recover in Sandy’s wake, it has become clear that we must find sustainable solutions to deal with these problems sooner, rather than later. Adapting to climate change is no longer some abstract concept that’ll burden future generations; it’s a pressing problem that we need to face now.

And we’ll have to start by figuring out how to better protect our major population centers that are particularly flood prone. Sandy created widespread flooding as 14-foot storm surges rushed inland. North of hard hit areas like the New Jersey shoreline and Staten Island in New York, the town of Stamford, Connecticut credits its seawall for saving 600 acres of land from the surge. On a larger scale, the oft-flooded Netherlands invests more than $1.3 billion annually in flood control. The European country is densely populated and about two-thirds of its land mass is at risk for flooding, making the large-scale flood protection measures a necessary investment. For much of the U.S., investment in such expansive flood control systems could not be justified. However, the threat of rising sea levels and more frequent severe storms has major U.S. population centers re-thinking the repair and rebuild approach.

In New York, a large-scale barrier system is estimated to cost between $10 billion and $17 billion to install. That investment seems more worthwhile when one considers that such protections would likely have reduced the estimated $33 billion in damages statewide brought on by Sandy. Still, the high price tag and environmental considerations stand as the largest hurdles to implementing such flood protection measures.

Short of drastic and enormously expensive engineering feats, better stormwater management is another component to reducing the negative effects of major weather events. Designers have floated ideas for “soft infrastructure” such as marsh and wetland barriers that would serve as natural buffers for storms. In addition, options like pervious ground cover, green roofs, roadside planting, rain gardens, and rainwater harvesting allow rain water to be filtered an absorbed rather than channeling runoff to over-burdened sewer systems. As we noted a few months back, these ideas are beginning to gain traction at the local level.

In addition to addressing issues related to flooding and stormwater management, we must also develop strategies to help cope with the aftermath of major weather events. While the federal response to Sandy has largely been seen as effective, the fact is that many people will be left to their own devices in the hours (or days) after a major natural disaster. In our technology-dependent world, communication in the absence of electricity is all but impossible. Millions of people found that their mobile phones and laptops were rendered useless after a reported 8.5 million people lost power due to Sandy. Enterprising hybrid owners, generous neighbors, and creative New Yorkers found ways to manage sans-electricity, but the storm highlighted the vulnerabilities of our current energy delivery system.

One option that may help gird the power network against widespread outages is the implementation of a distributed power system. This model is predicated on the idea that power generated from numerous small sources (e.g., solar panels, generators, and small wind turbines) can feed into the larger network, relieving the pressure on overtaxed power networks and providing supplemental power when necessary. This type of power delivery model has the potential to have lower environmental impacts and create a more stable network. However, the higher cost of smaller power generators cannot yet match the huge economies of scale achieved by major power plants.

These methods of adaptation only begin to touch on the kinds of widespread changes that will need to be made in light of the reality of climate change. With a renewed focus on hazard mitigation and disaster response in light of the damage caused by extreme weather events, now is the time to begin taking adaptation strategies seriously.

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