We need to change how and where we build to be ready for a future of more extreme weather

08Sep15

Read the full article here.

By Keith Krumwiede. Associate Professor of Architecture at New Jersey Institute of Technology

The human and economic losses resulting from extreme weather events during the last several years vividly demonstrate the US’ historically shortsighted approach to development. The ill-advised, fast-paced construction of human settlements in low-lying, coastal and riverine environments prone to flooding has long been the American way. From Galveston to Hoboken, we have laid out our grids and thrown up our houses with little regard for the consequences.

Galveston, Texas in 1871, ‘but a waif of the ocean,…liable, at any moment, and certain, at no distant day, of being engulfed and submerged by the self-same power that gave it form.’ Camille N. Drie

And the consequences can be devastating. Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast in 2012 just one year after Hurricane Irene, another “100-year” storm, “filled up Hoboken like a bathtub.” The storm’s impact all across the eastern seaboard was staggering: 147 people were killed, 650,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and 8.5 million residences lost power, some for weeks. In the end, the costs of the storm were pegged at over US$60 billion, making Sandy the second costliest natural disaster in US history after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Storms like Sandy are a harbinger of extreme weather events to come as a result of climate change. Without concerted action, the costs, in lives and property, of future weather events will only multiply. It’s time we recognize not only that the climate is changing but that the development patterns that have hardly served us well in the past certainly won’t serve us well in the future. Changing course will require a reassessment of risks as they relate not only to how but also to where we build. In our larger, more densely populated regions and cities, massive storm protection projects are both necessary and economically viable, but in many places we would be much better served to move out of harm’s way.

Torrential rains in May 2015 flooded this Houston, Texas apartment complex. Reuters Photographer

Climate change means more extreme weather events

It’s beyond dispute that the planet is warming. The year 2014 was the warmest on record, and projections suggest that by 2100, average global temperatures could increase by between 2 and 11 Fahrenheit. And with rising temperatures come rising sea levels. Globally, sea level rose 7 inches during the 20th century, and projections for the 21st century are alarming, with estimates ranging from between 1 and 4 feet globally.

The rise in global temperature and sea level has been accompanied by an increase in flood events and hurricane strength and activity in the Atlantic. Since 1958, intense rainfall events have increased 71% in the Northeast. This May, rainstorms in Texas dumped 35 trillion gallons of water, enough to cover the entire state to a depth of eight inches. Here again, projections don’t bode well for the future.

Along the Atlantic coast, stronger, wetter and more frequent storms will result in ever-increasing levels of damage – especially when combined with bigger storm surges due to rising sea levels, less protection due to the loss of storm-buffering wetlands and more exposure due to increasing development in low-lying areas.

Inland, an increase in extreme precipitation events combined with more floodplain development and greater stormwater runoff over increasingly impervious ground surfaces will lead to more frequent and intense flooding.

Idea: let’s rethink building cities on floodplains. Department of Environment and Climate Change, NSW, CC BY
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