Archive for the ‘Natural Disasters’ Category

Weighing Sandy One Year Later: The Good, The Bad

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region. Some rights reserved.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region. Some rights reserved.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast at this time last year, we looked at how climate change and global warming played a role in the havoc. One year later, we now know that it was the second most costly hurricane to hit the U.S. in the last hundred years ($65 billion and counting), and that its lasting influence will continue to affect everything from public health to public transportation. This week, however, National Geographic takes a look at Sandy’s silver lining: specifically, that the storm has done some small amounts of natural good amidst its destruction.
For instance, the massive amounts of water that hit the east coast helped clear out massively-polluted waters in places like Bellport Bay where the lack of water flow has caused extremely low water quality. Additionally, the storm helped clear out beach grass across the coast, unintentionally aiding shorebirds who nest on the beach and whose nesting areas were being encroached on by said beach grass. This is a crucial development specifically for the adorable-yet-endangered piping plover, of which there are only 17 couples in the area, so in the words of National Parks Service biologist Hanem Grace Abouelezz, “every egg counts.”

On the other hand, these scraps of good news do nothing to balance out the net-negative effects of Sandy, and Grist argues that we are woefully under prepared for the next mega-storm that will inevitably reach our shores. According to their articles, our shortcomings have to do with everything from mismanaging federal emergency aid spending to rebuilding properties in places we probably shouldn’t (re: water adjacent areas attractive for their location but vulnerable to future weather catastrophes). The message (and I think it’s a good one) seems to be that as we hit the one year anniversary of this tragedy, its important to reflect on what happened and how we reacted, but its just as important if not more so to give some serious thought to better preparing ourselves for the next go ’round.

On the Yosemite Fires, Spending, and Public Image Issues

Photo by Capt Darin Overstreet. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Capt Darin Overstreet. Some rights reserved.

Wildfires are a strange and sad and often mesmerizingly beautiful phenomenon. Every summer, somewhere in the American south, west, or Southwest, hundreds of Americans band together to fight against one of nature’s most potent defense mechanisms (or call them what you will). This summer, over the last week especially, the nation has watched (mostly through convenient web-based slideshows) as the seventh largest fire in California history raged across the Stanislaus National Forest and into the treasured and revered Yosemite National Park and Hetch Hetchy valley, covering a total of over 280 square miles so far. More than 3,700 individuals have been summoned to help contain the fire with more than a dozen water dropping helicopters at their disposal, but only 20% of the fire has been contained.

Despite the size, the park remains open and naturalists remain cautiously optimistic that the fire will be contained without any dire, lasting consequences to the area. The park remains open for tourism, as the fire continues to blaze in the somewhat remote northwestern corner of the park, a (somewhat) safe 20 miles from the Yosemite Valley, the heart of the park-as-tourist destination.

But some good info has also been dished out on the financial toll the fires will take on the already-tight California state budget, as well as on the behind-the-scenes strategies being employed in how the containment efforts are being handled. The LA Times takes a worthwhile look at how, having already used 15% of the $172 million set aside for wildfires, the state plans to handle the financial end of things if this fire continues to grow. The state budget includes a $1.1 billion reserve for emergencies, and FEMA has agreed to reimburse the state for up to 75% of “eligible firefighting costs,” but the point remains that these efforts always involve a price tag, and for a state that has been painted as “in trouble” for some time now, I’m sure this is not welcome news.

Meanwhile, NatGeo published some good reporting on the crafty PR strategies being employed. Specifically, how containment efforts have included placing sprinklers around two groves of giant sequoias, some of the parks most popular attractions, when the reality is that these older, larger trees have a much better chance of surviving the blaze than younger, weaker trees. However, officials worry that the fires could cause cosmetic damage to the giant sequoias that would make them “ugly” to the public and could hurt tourism in the immediate future.

Natural Disasters and Their Long-Term Implications

Photo by NOAA Photo Library. Some rights reserved.

Photo by NOAA Photo Library. Some rights reserved.

It seems like every bad thing that happens in the natural world (and some of the good things too – like extraordinarily good weather here in Seattle at a time when it’s usually still grey and cold) almost uniformly circles back to climate change. Flooding, tsunamis, tornadoes – these things aren’t just tragedies for the communities that they affect directly, they’re also harbingers of a grim future in which we’re dealing with these kinds of things on a much more frequent and perhaps more severe basis.

Case in point: Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown, a vocal supporter of climate change action, told reporters this week that the wildfires that tore across the Santa Monica Mountains at a much earlier date than usual could be blamed on global warming:

“Our climate is changing, the weather is becoming more intense,” Brown told the Los Angeles Times. “The big issue (is) how do we adapt, because it doesn’t look like the people who are in charge are going to do what it takes to really slow down this climate change, so we are going to have to adapt. And adapting is going to be very, very expensive.”

Hmm. Doesn’t sound particularly promising. On the other hand, maybe not all natural side effects of global warming are inherently bad things. This week, a report from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory highlighted a record low count for tornadoes in the U.S. in 2012, the lowest since recordkeeping on tornadoes began in 1954, and well below the previous record set in 1991 (197 in 2012 vs. 247 in 1991). While it’s not 100% clear that this dip in tornadoes has to do with climate change, there is a link to the lack of moisture in the air and the shortage of rainfall last year, weather abnormalities that themselves can be traced back to climate change. As Climate Central points out, “tornadoes are complicated beasts, affected not only by moisture and temperature but also by wind shear and other factors. So far, there’s simply not enough information to say anything definitive about the future of tornadoes under climate change.”

National Flood Insurance and Jersey Shore Demographics

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, some rights reserved.

Back in 1968, Congress stepped into the flood insurance market to provide coverage where private insurers would not. Today, taxpayers back $527 billion of assets in coastal flood plains insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. Run by the Federal Emergency Agency, the program paid out $16 billion of claims for Katrina; Sandy-related claims could reach $12 billion. The program is already $18 billion in debt, as sum the government acknowledges will probably never be covered by higher premiums.

Besides the program’s cost, what is the issue? In New York alone, 200,000 people live less than four feet above the high tide level. Nationwide, the number of people living in flood-prone areas has been increasing, so each natural disaster damages more property and displaces more people than the last. An op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times opines that the time for the federal government to subsidize the insuring of homes and businesses in high-risk flood zones is long past. If property owners cannot find flood insurance on the private market, which in many cases they cannot, they should bear that risk instead of transferring it to the federal government.

One of the implications of changing federal flood insurance would be increased cost of living in coastal areas. Another Times article covers how Sandy and the coming National Flood Insurance Program rate hikes will make “seaside living, once and for all, a luxury only the wealthy can afford.” Building requirements for homes in newly mapped flood hazard zones could effect a demographic shift in the northeast, because much of the development encouraged by subsidized insurance would only be affordable to wealthy buyers.

The wisdom of subsidizing status quo demographics on the Jersey Shore to the tune of $18 billion aside, the point of reducing or eliminating federal flood insurance would be to end the cycle of natural disaster and expensive rebuilding without internalizing the risks of development in flood-prone coastal areas, which in light of recent events are certainly expanding. This is a step toward affordable environmental risk-management most people can back in good conscience.

Fukushima Fallout – The EU Answer

Photo by Lynne Kirton. Some rights reserved.

Following the nuclear incident at Fukushima in the wake of a massive earthquake and tsunami, the EU moved to assess its nuclear power plants for their readiness in a similar situation, as well as other potential major incidents both natural and manmade. Today, the results of those examinations were released.

For those looking for quick, easy-to-digest data, the European Commission’s memo  laid out a short series of questions and answers: number of reactors tested (145); types of events checked (extreme weather conditions, plane crashes, and extreme natural events such as the tsunami hit suffered by Fukushima); and highlights of the findings (37% of EU reactors aren’t up to recent standards for earthquakes; 43% didn’t meet the standards for flooding).

The EC also made available both the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament  (a succinct but informative 20 pages) and the Commission Staff Working Document  (62 pages of extensive detail, including the key recommendations and a breakdown of results by country). While no EU nuclear plants were found to be in such poor shape as to require immediate closure, the findings still make it clear that more can be done to prepare for adverse events. The Working Document’s recommendations regarding “Station Black-Out” (a complete loss of power) include availability of an alternative cooling system; equipment and staff prepared to deal with an event affecting all onsite reactors at once; and supply/availability of mobile equipment including emergency lights, firefighting gear, and batteries or alternative power supplies – some or all of which could have turned the tide of events at Fukushima.

Controlling Weather Control

Photo by Marc Veraart. Some rights reserved.

In the midst of the coverage of Hurricane Irene, one post from the New York Times in particular caught my eye. As folks struggled to wrap their heads around a potentially massive hurricane making landfall in New York and the potential subsequent devastation, the post drew attention to “Category 7,” a 2007 work of fiction about a fictionalized hurricane of unprecedented strength unleashed (purposefully!) onto NYC by an evil master of “secret, cutting-edge weather science.”

While so-called “weather warfare” is officially banned (the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques – an international treaty adopted in 1976 – formally prohibited such activities), more innocuous weather modification techniques are surprisingly common. Cloud seeding is a process used to increase precipitation, reduce hail, or eliminate fog by means of spraying tiny particles such as silver iodide into the sky to trigger cloud formation.

Most weather modification licensing and regulation happens at the state level. For a good example of weather modification laws, you can see Title 9, Chapters 301 and 302 of Texas’ Agriculture Code. However, federal level law requires certain weather modification activities to be reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): “Any person intending to engage in any weather modification project or activity in the United States shall provide a report of his intention, to be received by the Administrator at least 10 days before the commencement of such project or activity.” (see 15 CFR Part 908)

A 2009 congressional bill (S. 601) would have established a Weather Mitigation Research Program within the National Science Foundation, and authorized a “research and development program to improve the understanding of processes relating to [weather modification activities].” While today’s weather modifications are mostly limited to those serving agricultural purposes, future activities are likely to focus on mitigating climate change and its effects (like deadly hurricanes!). A recently released GAO report assessed “climate engineering technologies, focusing on their technical status, future directions for research on them, and potential responses.”

Interested in reading more about weather control? Check out this great piece in Harper’s Magazine, Disaster aversion: The quest to control hurricanes by Rivka Galchen.

Japanese Financial Regulation Post-Earthquake

Law firm Bingham McCutchen has just published a legal alert focusing on the current landscape of Japanese financial regulatory policy amidst market disruptions and relief efforts.

You can see examples of public company disclosures to the SEC relating to the March 11, 2011, earthquake here.

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