Our sympathies go out to those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean and Florida. Individuals across Massachusetts and New England have provided significant support with donations, cash, and supplies. But, we wonder, is there more we can do to ease the human suffering and environmental degradation? Can we make a change in our own lives to reduce the instances of extreme weather events, such as modern-day hurricanes, with greater intensities and frequencies than ever before?
How Hurricanes Form
The warming of the earth is creating hurricanes that are more powerful and last longer. Warmer air allows storms to hold more moisture, which, in turn leads to greater rainfall and flooding. Anders Levermann, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research claimed, “Unfortunately, the physicality is very clear: Hurricanes get their destructive energy from the warmth of the ocean, and the region’s water temperatures are super elevated.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) confirms that a weather disturbance, like a thunderstorm, paired with ocean waters of at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit draws warm surface air to create a hurricane, while the Earth’s rotation enables them to spin. The perfect conditions exist in the Atlantic between 5 and 20 degrees latitude, right below Florida and Texas, and above South America. These circumstances provided the key ingredients that allowed Hurricane Harvey to quickly transition from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 4. Hurricane status is achieved when wind speeds reach 74 mph; Hurricane Irma topped that when it reached speeds of 185 mph. In the coming years, this could become the new normal. It’s no surprise that change is needed for preventative measures to mitigate against global climate change.
Hurricane Sandy as seen from NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite on October 28, 2012. Image courtesy of NOAA/NASA.
The Need for Mitigation
There are a lot of ways to reduce our carbon footprints and lessen our negative impacts on the planet. Recycling, carpooling, driving an electric or hybrid vehicle, or using renewable energies are some ways to do this. Going solar can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and slow climate change. Reducing greenhouse gases is a proven way to prevent increased ocean and air temperatures that lead to increased hurricane frequency and intensity. Also, solar energy is distributed across a larger geographic area, so the energy itself is not as vulnerable to issues from climate change, leading to fewer outages than from conventional energy sources. Transitioning to clean and renewable energies can make our coastal communities safer and give us a secure source of energy despite weather events/ phenomenons.
Public Health Concerns
Most importantly, it is a clean energy, for it does not introduce the harmful substances into the environment that oil refineries would. Beyond an environmental sustainability perspective, this is a public health concern. Hurricane Harvey brought increased flooding causing eleven oil refineries along the Texas coast and the greater Houston to shut down. Oil refineries are 24-hour-a-day operations that are not built to withstand “forced shutdowns.” As a result, large volumes of toxic air have been released into Houston neighborhoods. More than 2 million pounds of hazardous substances have poured into the air for Houston residents to inhale. Interstates are underwater and rivers and streams are flooding leading to sewage overflow. Chemicals from propane containers, fertilizers, and local chemical plants have seeped into the flood water. Spokesman for the Houston Health Department declared, “ It [the floodwater] is contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants.”
Adults returning to pick up memorabilia and children playing in the floodwaters have been rushed to hospitals after developing infections from contaminated waters. Houston has undergone serious trauma with the initial wind impacts, causing homes to be inhabitable. Now resident of Houston are finding that even if they decide to rebuild their homes, hazardous toxins have spread all over the city and may require serious decontamination efforts. Continuing to invest in fossil fuels will have dangerous consequences and can even place communities at risk. In a previous blog post, we outlined the extensivity of environmental externalities, from economic, environmental, and public health standpoints. Still not convinced? Leonardo DiCaprio is on board (and he has also even donated $1 million to hurricane relief efforts).