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Hurricane Irene is a reminder that adapting to climate change is smart policy, regardless of the climate change part

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Hurricane Irene on August 26, as seen from the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of U.S. Astronaut Ron Garan (@astro_ron).

Talk about eery timing. The current special issue of Scientific American is about cities, and as I type this, Hurricane Irene is making her way up the Atlantic seaboard and is expected to reach New York City by Sunday morning.

I, like nearly everyone else, am refreshing news pages, blog posts, and scanning my Twitter feed for stories and updates about Irene. I am particularly drawn to stories about how New York City is preparing for the storm. According to the New York Times, approximately 370,000 people in New York City are being asked to find higher ground. Another 2 million people in surrounding areas are being asked to do the same.

Besides the people using the hurricane as an excuse to drink wine, Irene is a pretty big dang deal for the Big Apple. How big? The New York subway system has been shut down. Things must be serious!

It’s times like these that we are reminded of the breadth and power of Nature, and that severe weather events like these are likely to be more frequent as the climate continues to change. But we are not completely powerless. We can plan ahead for these events to minimize loss of life and damage to our cities.

According the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over 53 percent of Americans live within 50 miles of a coastline. So, ensuring that our cities and metro areas are prepared for rising sea levels, storm surges, intense rainfall events, and more is smart public policy.

While the direct influence of climate change on Hurricane Irene is unknown, climate change adaptation planning (or adaptation for short) would come in handy for events like this.

Adaptation planning is exactly what you think it means: planning for a range of scenarios related to a changing climate like rising sea levels, shifting rainfall patterns, increased disease outbreaks, etc. You get the idea. A coastal city might plan for rising sea levels by moving buildings and other infrastructure to higher ground, or engineering systems to remove massive amounts of water in subway systems (for example).

Thankfully, New York City has a Climate Change Task Force set up to study the effects of things like increased rainfall and rising sea levels on the city’s infrastructure. Looking on the bright side, Hurricane Irene will probably offer a lot of insight into future planning activities. The Federal government also has an ongoing Task Force dedicated to coordinating state, local, and federal agencies in their efforts to not go underwater (among other concerns).

However, it’s not clear how much of the City’s current hurricane evacuation plan has been influenced by any of the adaptation work.

Now, adaptation planning is not a new concept. Amsterdam is always used as an example, and for good measure. Natural sand dunes along with man-made dikes, floodgates, and pumping stations offer protection from incoming forces of the storm surge variety.

Here in Texas, the 17-foot Galveston seawall was constructed after the Hurricane of 1900, some 50 years before the current naming convention was adopted. In fact, after the Hurricane of 1900, the entire city of Galveston was raised on top of 17 feet of sand.

It wasn’t called climate change adaptation planning back then, and not many people were thinking of global climate change. Presumably, people just got tired of having their homes and lives swept away by storm surges and decided that they had had enough.

Anyway, this is a just a long-winded way of saying that planning for these types of severe weather events is good public policy and smart science, because these preparations can save lives and money when big storm events occur.

Storm surges and shrinking coastlines are one of the many things addressed by adaptation planning. It will be interesting to see how the infrastructure in New York City holds up under Irene. In the meantime, I’m sending positive vibes to the East Coast.

***
As an aside, Austin is 10 months into an “exceptional drought”. If the East Coast would be so kind to send us some rain, we would be very grateful.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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