Preparing for the Storms to Come

November 21, 2014
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by Amanda Carpenter, Program Associate, Second Nature

(This post is part of a series by the Second Nature team about why we do what we do.)

My passion for sustainability started, oddly enough, with a fascination with the weather. As a kid, hearing the severe weather warning tone on the television was as close to Christmas as I could get in the late spring. The warning would go off announcing the advent of a severe storm or flash flood warning, and I would be glued to the TV hoping that the announcement would mean that something cool was about to happen.

One such occasion interrupted a family barbecue on the last day of May. The forecast that morning had said that there was a high likelihood that there would be severe thunderstorms in the late afternoon, and you could definitely feel it stepping outside. The air was hot and humid, sitting heavily as the fog rolled in that early evening, and draining the motivation out of everything it touched. Around 4PM the severe weather warning started across the TV screen accompanied by a warning I had never heard before: Tornado Warning for Eastern New York.

The EF-3 tornado that dropped down about 10 miles north of my mom’s house is now known as the Mechanicville-Stillwater Tornado. The half-mile base of the tornado slashed a 30.5-mile gouge down Route 67, and was part of the historic Late-May 1998 Tornado Outbreak and Derecho. The estimated wind speed of 150-200 miles per hour was strong enough to tear the bark off of trees, and lob bricks through the side of tractor-trailers. While thankfully no one died in this tornado, 350 homes and businesses were destroyed, and 68 people were injured. Many of those who were harmed and lost everything were living in trailers and mobile homes and had little capacity to rebuild, let alone rebuild resiliently to withstand future storms.

In college I studied environmental science, and learned how amazingly complex Earth’s atmospheric systems are. The reason that it was nearly impossible to predict weather more than two weeks into the future was because of the innate chaos that exists in the constantly moving, semi-viscous blanket that surrounds the Earth and lets life as we know it continue. Most importantly, I learned how much humans were altering these atmospheric systems, and not for the better.

As the world warms, Earth’s weather systems will become increasingly extreme and more erratic: heat waves, droughts, wildfires, severe downpours, and likely more frequent strong hurricanes, tornadoes and lightning. All of these have consequences for the people who live and work in areas that will be devastated by extreme weather. But not everyone will be affected to the same degree.

People who are already in precarious positions in society are being harmed disproportionately more because of climate change. A domestic example of this can be seen in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, where low income housing was more likely to be located in low-lying and flood prone areas. Research by Climate Central has found that in New York City, given a 5-foot rise in sea levels due to storm surge or other causes, 59,107 (77%) people with high social vulnerability would be at risk. Add to this the fact that many of the people who are the most vulnerable to harm during extreme weather events (the very young and old, as well as the sick and the poor) have the least capacity to take preemptive actions to reduce their risk and often little opportunity to rebuild resiliently.

In the global discourse about what to do regarding climate change, there are still many unanswered questions: who gets what funding and assistance, and what actions are environmentally, socially and culturally appropriate, and who will pay for it all? Despite these questions, one thing is clear: uncertainty cannot be a paralytic. Action needs to be taken to prevent inflicting desperate situations on those who cannot take anticipatory action. This very concept was the reason why I studied climate and climate adaptation ethics while I was in graduate school, and the reason I work in the sustainability field.

Now that I am older, severe weather warnings have a different meaning. They are now as much a warning of things to come as they are a call to action. By people doing what they can now, we can collectively help prevent causing harm on vulnerable populations. By taking whatever actions I can, no matter how little they may seem sometimes I can help make the world a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable place.

This is why I work.


Image credit: NOAA