Is There a Silver Lining in the Clouds of Hurricane Irma?

Sep 11, 2017 by


Hurricane Irma as a Category 5 storm, passing over Cuba on September 9th as it steams toward Florida. Photo: NOAA-NASA GOES Satellite

By coincidence, a couple weeks ago I went to a lecture about the Hurricane of 1938, which devastated a large swath of New England, including much of New Hampshire and southeastern Vermont, where I live. What stuck me—compared with Hurricane Irma, which is wreaking havoc and destruction throughout Florida as I write this—is that the Hurricane of ’38 was a total surprise. New Englanders had no forewarning of the storm, according to Stephen Long, who was discussing his 2016 book, Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England.

We didn’t have satellites back in 1938, of course, and while we knew about barometric pressure as an indicator of approaching storms, the ’38 Hurricane was extremely fast-moving—traveling at over 50 miles per hour (compared with 10-15 mph for Irma). When the hurricane struck Long Island, the phone lines were taken out before anyone could make calls to warn their more northerly neighbors. There was literally no communication about the storm, which killed over 600 people.

With Irma, we have been watching and reading about the approaching storm for more than a week. CNN, the Weather Channel, and other news sources are running nonstop satellite imagery, along with news of evacuation zones, shelters, power outages, wind speeds, and storm surges. Those of us curious about the details of storm forecasting have even been learning about the differences between and American and European weather forecasting models. (With this storm, the European forecasting model has proven to be more accurate.)

If there is a bright note with Irma it is that the storm has not taken us by surprise.

Why do we not heed longer-term warnings?

As I’ve watched the coverage of Irma and the evacuations of residents from the storm—among the most extensive ever in the United States—I am struck by the realization that we, as a society, seem willing to take action following short-term warnings, but are generally unwilling to heed warnings when the impact might not be immediate.

Whether or not you believe that Hurricanes Irma and Harvey are the result of climate change—I believe that warmer temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic contributed to the intensity of these storms and that global warming is a cause of those warmer water temperatures—it is hard to deny that scientists have been warming us about global warming and its many, nefarious impacts, for several decades.

Yet most of us do nothing. Why is that?

I believe there are several reasons: First, there has been a strong commitment of most in the news media to “present both sides.” They report on global warming, but then give almost equal billing to that small band of climate change deniers within the scientific community. This gives the public the inaccurate perception that the validity of the science is still being debated. The public is left with doubts about how real the long-term risks are.

Second, the most-watched news channel in the country, Fox News, which long had the tagline “Fair and Balanced” has been neither. Fox News, and several news sources that are even more radical and biased in their coverage, such as, has done a tremendous disservice to America and, especially, our children and grandchildren, who will have to suffer the consequences of our era of inaction on climate change.

Third, this doubt espoused by the media is compounded by the politics of well-funded special interests in Washington and statehouses around the country. Lobbyists, funded especially by the fossil fuel industry, line the pockets of politicians and fund reports that sow doubt on the science of climate change. Unless we were to have the wisdom, as a society, to eliminate the way in which special interests fund our elections, this reality will be hard to change.

Is there a silver lining?

As an optimist—a struggling optimist, I’ll admit—I’ve always looked for the silver lining when problems arise.

The one-two punch of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may finally awaken America, and our politicians in Washington, about the need to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and the realities of climate change.

But even if these storms aren’t enough of a wake-up call about global warming to bring about change in Washington, they might bring about real action on resilience and preparedness. You don’t have to believe that global warming is occurring to recognize that storms are getting more intense and rainfall events more extreme; there is clear data to that effect going back more than fifty years—and we see it, even on Fox News.

One of those resilience measures would not only keep people safer but also save energy—reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that are the leading cause of climate change. As of Monday morning, 5.8 million utility customers in Florida were without power. Leading up to the storm, utility officials were warning that 92% of the state could lose power, and some of the service might not be restored for weeks. If there is hardship that results from homeowners being without power, that could spur building codes and other regulations that mandate passive survivability.

Passive survivability is the idea that buildings should be designed and built with passive measures that will ensure that those buildings maintain habitable temperatures. I described this principle in a lot more detail in this 2012 article.

Just to be clear, this is not a suggestion for staying put when there is a call for evacuation. Getting to a safe place is still the top priority. Flood-prone areas and zones where dangerous winds are forecast should be evacuated, but as we are seeing with Irma, power outages can extend well beyond evacuation zones—and not everyone heeds those calls to evacuate. Also, the predicted path of a storm can shift, threatening places that had been thought to be fairly safe.

Passive survivability should also be a design criterion for any building that is designated to serve as an emergency shelter. If high insulation levels, natural ventilation, and other passive cooling measures can reduce the amount of air conditioning needed in an emergency shelter, the fuel for backup generators will last longer. In cold climates, the same goes for heating. In a severe winter storm, fuel deliveries may not be possible, so schools and other buildings that could be used as shelters should be exceptionally well-insulated and designed to benefit from passive solar heating and natural daylighting.

These resilience strategies—not all resilience strategies, but at least those aimed at achieving passive survivability—help to reduce energy consumption, and thus greenhouse gas emissions, so they can help to mitigate global warming. This is an around-about strategy for combatting climate change, but we need to take advantage of every opportunity out there. If a goal of resilience gets some people to reduce their energy consumption, that’s great. Let’s encourage that!

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