Defeating Disaster Part I: Climate Changes Demand Preparation

Designers, engineers and city planners have the ability and the responsibility to engineer cities that not only react well to disaster, but that proactively prevent destruction. In this three-part Defeating Disaster blog series, I will take a look at how our communities can prepare for the altering weather patterns associated with climate change, minimize damage from weather events, and ultimately, become more resilient in the face of natural disaster.

Most of us, unless we are very lucky, have been through some sort of natural disaster. Hiding out in a basement, driving north to get away from an incoming hurricane, bailing out water after a flood… those moments teach us just how powerful nature can be, and just how vulnerable we are. The built environment that we create- the buildings and infrastructure that make up our communities- is similarly vulnerable to nature's power. However,  we are not entirely powerless. How we engineer our cities can be a deciding factor in minimizing the scope and severity of weather. As climate change drives more variable, less predictable weather patterns, engineering has a crucial role to play in preparing our communities to withstand both typical and unusual weather threats. 

Cities and communities particularly at risk for certain natural disasters have long utilized design and engineering solutions to preempt severe destruction.  Many coastal communities have designed their building codes to promote hurricane-safe practices, as is obvious when driving past rows of houses atop sturdy stilts. In states prone to tornadoes, storm shelters and reinforced rooms are becoming more common, even if not included in local building codes. A rash of severe tornado outbreaks over the last several years has only reinforced this need. Aside from structural engineering, vulnerable states have also undertaken response planning efforts, such as the Intelligent Transportation System our team designed for the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Among other functions, this system can provide video feeds of major hurricane evacuation routes, pinpoint traffic problems, and relay that information to the public via intelligent road signage.

These and similar preparations have become the norm in states vulnerable to certain weather events, but, as our climate continues to change, weather events will become less and less confined to their usual "territory," and seem set to increase in both frequency and severity. The map below shows projections for the impact of climate change on different regions in the U.S. 

  Adapted from the United States Global Change Research Program, 2009

A few observations to note: The Northeast region is likely to experience severe flooding as heavy downpours occur more frequently, the Midwest is likely to see both more severe flooding and more severe droughts, the Southeast and coastal areas are likely to see more severe weather events and higher storm surges, the Northwest is likely to experience increased wildfires and coastline erosion, and the Southwest is likely to experience periods of severe drought and unexpected flooding. Overall, the occurrence of randomized heavy precipitation events is expected to skew upwards from historical averages in the coming years, according to the report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

This upward trend in the frequency of non-average, unpredictable weather events poses a fundamental problem for designers and engineers, who tend to base designs on predictions drawn from historical weather data and statistics. Climate change, and its volatile effect on weather patterns, is pushing the limits of that data set and challenging designers to think beyond historical precedent. A 2010 National Research Council report, Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change, said it best: "In the long term, adaptation to climate change calls for a new paradigm that takes into account a range of possible future climate conditions and associated changes in human and natural systems instead of managing our resources based on previous experience and the historical range and variability of climate." Severe weather events can have a devastating impact on our communities- in lives lost and permanently altered, in property destroyed or damage, and in massive disruption to the airports, roadways and other infrastructure that keep our communities running efficiently. Now is the time to determine what role engineers have to play in the new paradigm for dealing with disaster.

For more on the crucial role engineers can play in natural disaster response, see the second post in this Defeating Disaster series: The Unseen First Responder, and the third and final post: Engineering a Resilient City.

  

 

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