As Hurricane Season Approaches Climate Adaptation Is More Necessary Than Ever

Chris Carnevale | June 6, 2012 | Climate Change, Extreme Weather
Hurricane Fran Picture
Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

This blog is the fourth of a four-part series by Simon Mahan, Chris Carnevale, Jennifer Rennicks, and Ulla Reeves on hurricanes and energy. Previous blogs have focused on Hurricanes and Climate Change, and Hurricanes and Wind Farms, and Hurricanes and Offshore Drilling.  This post was co-authored by Ulla Reeves.

It’s officially hurricane season 2012, so you know what that means… It’s time to make sure you’re hurricane prepared if you live anywhere from the Gulf of Mexico on up the Eastern Seaboard.

So let’s see here…

Stocked up on canned and non-perishable food in case refrigeration goes out… check!

Have plenty of fresh bottled water in case the water system stops working… check!

Have emergency contacts… check!

Map out a hurricane escape route… check!

Practicing these common hurricane safety measures is essential to ensure that we are ready for a nasty storm.  But while we prepare for individual storms, our communities are in serious need of a larger plan to ensure that we are safe from increasingly severe weather that is likely to occur as our planet warms.

Many signs in the world of science point toward the likelihood that storms will get more severe as our world warms.  While there is a fair amount of variation in opinion about the impact of global warming on hurricanes, renowned NOAA scientists assert that by the end of the 21st century, according to IPCC modeling, warming may cause:

  • an increase in frequency of category 4 and 5 hurricanes
  • a decrease in frequency of category 1 – 3 hurricanes
  • an increase in average storm intensity by 2% – 11%, even factoring in the decrease of smaller storms
  • an overall increase in hurricane damages by 30%, not taking into account future sea level rise
  • substantially higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes—perhaps 20% more rainfall within 100 km of the storm center

While more severe storms are clearly problematic in their own right, the additional factors of sea level rise and increased rainfall also converge to create “the perfect storm” of disaster.  In a warming planet, sea level is expected to rise, meaning higher storm surges and more flood damage.  Increased rainfall will further overwhelm already-taxed drainage systems and lead to yet further flooding.  With predictions like these, it’s clear that we need to enact strategies that address our risk beyond just the next big storm, but rather take into account the bigger picture.  We need to adapt to the changing climate.

Isn't It Time We Prepared?
We've spent years debating the causes of global warming. Isn't it time we prepared for it? Courtesy Breakthrough Institute.

Climate adaptation is the practice of anticipating future needs and risks as the climate changes and acting accordingly.  Similarly to how we in hurricane country prepare ourselves “just in case” a storm comes, implementing a climate adaptation plan can greatly lessen the blow of catastrophe.  Just as we “plan for the worst yet hope for the best” with hurricanes, climate adaptation advocates have long cautioned that it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to climate change.

Since climate change will impact different places in different ways and since the appropriate method of dealing with those impacts will vary from place to place, it is important for communities to find out what their own unique vulnerabilities and adaptation opportunities are.  Specifically talking about hurricanes and the Southeast, some adaptation strategies may include incorporating sea level rise and flood projections into future development planning, updating building codes to account for stronger storms and higher flooding, or reducing impermeable surfaces and implementing innovative water catchment systems to mitigate stormwater management overload.  Different vulnerabilities and different adaptation strategies must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, though.

As we look ahead to yet another hurricane season and as our atmosphere reaches 400 ppm of carbon dioxide, we find ourselves facing an important question: will we act now to mitigate future catastrophe or just let disaster strike and just hope for the best?  Given that we are staring in the face of the trifecta of stronger storms, higher seas, and increased rainfall, along with other climate change impacts such as heat waves and drought, it only makes sense to me that we help to ensure that our cities and communities are resilient with climate change adaption.  If we don’t prepare now for the inevitable changes to our planet’s system, we’ll be very sorry we only focused flashlights, back up food and water, and first aid kits.

For more information, please see NOAA’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management Climate Adaptation webpage or ICLEI-USA’s Climate Adaptation Guidance webpage.

Chris Carnevale
Based in Charleston, South Carolina, Chris is SACE’s Coastal Climate and Energy Manager and South Carolina State Affairs Liaison. His work focuses on building a critical mass of support for…
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