5
Sep
2005

Hurricane an Unnatural Disaster, Root Causes Are Ecological

Coastal Ecosystems and Climate Must Be Protected

Earth Meanders by Dr. Glen Barry //earthmeanders.blogspot.com/ August 31, 2005

The catastrophe unfolding on the US Gulf Coast is fundamentally a human caused ecological tragedy rather than a natural disaster. When President Bush and others smirk at global warming, when developers destroy wetlands, governments channel rivers, and billions are wasted on war and tax cuts for the rich - conditions are created where natural processes are greatly intensified.

America is witnessing an environmental catastrophe of historic magnitude, yet because of their myopic "modern" viewpoint can not recognize it as such. When thousands of refugees from a climate change intensified hurricane, huddle in wrecked cities along barren coastlines and destroyed water works, we are witnessing human-caused ecological collapse. Hurricane Katrina's intensity and difficult aftermath is a direct result of habitat degradation, over-population and climate change.

I am not suggesting Katrina sprang directly from global warming. But leading scientists have long warned that climate change creates an environment prone to more violent storms and other weather extremes. Nor is it suggested that President Bush caused the hurricane. But his obstinacy in refusing to address climate change and refusal to focus on non-oil based energy perpetuates conditions that make these situations more likely and more deadly.

Let me express my deepest sympathy for the victims. We owe it to them to identify the root causes of this disaster, particularly since ecological refugees of this sort will increasingly become the norm. Disaster recovery must include learning and acting upon the ecological lessons of this tragic and historically unprecedented event.

Disaster Waiting to Happen

New Orleans being fed to a hurricane was the result of specific "unnatural" policy decisions. It is not natural (or wise) to build a city below sea-level surrounded by water on three sides in an area where hurricanes occur. A human intensified hurricane fueled by ocean waters warmed by human emissions is not natural. Millions living along a narrow coast line cleared of natural vegetation and coastal ecosystems is not natural. And destruction of wetlands and diverting natural water flows, which leads to sinking coasts, is indeed most unnatural and dangerous.

Katrina was especially deadly because it struck heavily populated areas. From 1980 to 2003, the U.S. coastal population grew by 33 million. There are far too many people living along the Gulf Coast relative to the ecosystems that exist to support them. A few decades ago coastal Louisiana and Mississippi were still covered in swampy wetlands, natural buffers to such storms.

The loss of such coastal wetlands may be the single preventable factor that most exacerbated Hurricane Katrina's destructive power. Wetlands along rivers and near the coast are vital for absorbing and storing floodwaters, and slowing down storm surges. Coastal wetlands in the Gulf Coast have been lost to ill-planned and deadly commercial developments. Louisiana alone has lost 5000 square kilometers of wetlands over the past seven decades - an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. This equals 65 square kilometers of hurricane absorbing coast being lost every year.

The hydrology of the Gulf Coast has been dramatically altered. Natural water flows have been tamed, including straightening the Mississippi River. As a result, the low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers New Orleans from the gulf, has been rapidly disappearing as less silt is deposited. Together the Gulf Coast's drastic habitat and hydrological changes have caused the coastline and New Orleans itself to sink.

While Katrina's existence can not specifically be linked to global warming, warming oceans as a cause of stronger hurricanes is consistent with current climate change science. All indications are that hurricanes are intensifying in strength. It has long been known that hurricanes suck energy from warm ocean waters to drive their winds. A recent MIT study found average peak wind speeds of hurricanes over the North Atlantic and the western and eastern North Pacific has increased by 50% over past decades. This increase in storm intensity closely aligned with rising sea-surface temperatures due to global warming.

Global warming has also led to a sea level rise, which exacerbates flooding such as occurred in New Orleans. Some one third of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the ocean, and thirteen of the eighteen largest cities in the world are by the sea. When some two billion people are faced with rising sea levels caused by global warming, as well as intensified hurricanes, the potential for flooding and other dramatic disasters goes up significantly. This is why we must pursue policies to protect the climate as we further study these phenomena.

What It Means, What Must Be Done

It is not too early to find fault, or to diagnose long-term measures to avoid such disasters. Those that are most at fault for this disaster include the oil industry and their consumers, coastal developers and their occupants, and government officials that failed to heed science on climate change, the risk of flooding in New Orleans, and the importance of coastal ecosystems.

Human development that is planned and conceived without regard to natural ecosystems can not be sustained. The way to minimize future occurrences of this type is to embrace ecological sustainability, sustainable development and ecological restoration as policies underpinning a post-modern society. Blindness to human dependence upon nature is no longer tolerable.

The United States simply can not go on with profligate use of oil. The time when we could count on cheap oil is clearly ending. Important aspects of both 911 and Hurricane Katrina are blowback resulting from America's oil addiction. America has been shown to be a fragile place, one environmental disaster or oil shock away from chaos.

What to do in the mid to long term? We must stop emitting carbon dioxide. We must stop financing development in coastal areas and flood plains. We need a ban on reoccupying storm wracked coastal areas, in order that they may be restored to living, protecting barriers from such storms. Cities must be placed and designed for sustainability over centuries. Further, all humanity must stop having more than one or two children a couple.

These ecologically based policies will not immediately help the hapless victims - but over decades and generations we can maintain an Earth that is livable. Given current population, deteriorating ecosystems, and diminished resources - there can be no other outcome other than mass death and anarchy unless we start changing our ways and preparing now. We are not owed a safe life secure from nature's vagaries. We earn it by treating the Earth with respect, and living in an ecologically sustainable manner.

The whole world has seen how utterly horrible ecological collapse can be. The air-conditioned, highly mobile and wired reality that Americans take for granted is a thin veneer indeed. This past week has drummed home to me that global ecological collapse is going to mean misery and suffering for hundreds of millions if not billions of people. The anarchy that sadly pervades so much of the World has come to America and, as I and others have predicted, it is due to our ecological ignorance and recklessness.


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Stacy Bergot Campbell
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