Preparing for Severe Weather and Climate Change

Hurricane Isabel

March 4th, 2014

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This week, March 2-8th, is Severe Weather Preparedness Week. According to NOAA, in 2013 there were seven severe weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States.  This large economic impact and potential effect on day-to-day life is becoming the new normal. Many of these severe weather events, from hurricanes to wildland fire to severe heat and drought can be connected directly or indirectly to climate change.

From a geological perspective, the climate of the Earth has changed continuously overtime. This is due to a variety of factors from the position of the landmasses to volcanic activity to Earth’s fluctuating position in space relative to the Sun. Currently, (in a geologic sense) we are in a natural warming period as the last major glaciation period ended roughly 12,000-10,000 years ago. As the Earth naturally warms, humans are raising the global temperature by increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through activities such as burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests.

What does this all mean? A warming climate will lead to more severe weather events. Hurricanes, which develop and gain strength over warm water, will become more intense as the ocean temperatures rise. Melting of glaciers and polar ice caps will reduce fresh water availability across the world and raise sea levels, which in turn may create higher storm surges and flooding in coastal areas. Higher temperatures and earlier melting of snowpack may lead to drier vegetation, larger wildland fires and overall longer fire seasons. Heat waves may become longer lasting and more common as well.

Yet, these severe weather events only become “disasters” when humans become impacted in negative ways. Take the event of a wildland fire. Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem as certain tree species, such as the lodge pole pine, depend on extreme heat to release their seeds. Yet as humans, we may perceive these fires as negative due to the risk of houses burning or smoke impacting our health. Even though humans have built our own environments, we still need to remember we are part of the natural world.

As the human population continues to rise and we continue to fortify our built environment, we need to be that much more prepared for the impacts of climate change and severe weather events. The recent “snowpocalypse” event in the Atlanta region serves as a good example of why it is important to be prepared for all types of severe weather, especially if it is an event the region is not accustomed to cope with. The decisions made before a severe weather event may reduce our vulnerability during and after the event occurs.

As an individual, you can take multiple actions to prepare for a severe weather event. An emergency can come with and without warning so it is important to:

  1. Stay informed: You can sign up for local emergency alerts to your phone, watch or listen to the news and be sure to follow the guidance and direction of government officials.
  2. Make a plan: Have a written plan and contact list of your support network so you can reach each other or meet in a safe location during or after an emergency.
  3. Build a kit: You may have to evacuate or shelter in place at a moment’s notice. It is important you have essential supplies such as food, water, clothing, flashlights, and medications ready.
  4. Get Involved: Establish ties in your community before a disaster occurs. This can take many forms from being part of the community planning process to training and volunteering with local community groups.

For more information about how best to prepare for severe weather events, visit: http://www.ready.gov.

The Earth is 4.6 billion years old and has gone through many changes, to its climate and physical geology. Thus, the Earth will continue to have climate changes and severe weather events. As humans who live to maybe 100 years old, our perception of time is very different. We may view specific severe weather events as disasters depending on the economic and social impact, but the more prepared we are for them, the less vulnerable we will be to whatever Mother Nature sends us in the future.

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