It's the people, not just the storms

I have quoted and echoed these thoughts here before: people living on the coastlines of the world are helping to create the damage and hardship that high-intensity coastal storms bring.  Before anyone claims that I’m blaming the victims here, let me articulate a subtler argument. As people and resources (ports, businesses, expensive homes, etc.) are concentrated on coast lines, storms can yield greater damage.  Seems like a simple argument, right?

Warrenton, OR photo courtesy of Google.comUnfortunately, most of humanity is not heeding it: worldwide the proportion of people (rich and poor) living on the coastlines is increasing.  By mid-century, the world population is expected to be at least 80% concentrated on coastlines.  In the United States, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its document Population Trends Along the Coastal United States: 1980-2008,  the total number of people living on our coasts will grow by 7 million, up from 153 million as of 2003. That’s about 53% of the nation’s total population.

Regardless of whether storm intensity increases due to climate change, population increases and concentrations of wealth and economic resources on coast lines will mean bigger losses with each storm.

The on-line version of Time Magazine has a nice article on the subject with references to some of the harder literature backing up these claims.  Here is a quote from the article that makes up the crux of the issue:

“If climate change is having an effect on the intensities of storms, it’s not obvious in the historical weather data. And whatever effect it is having is much, much smaller than the effect of development along coastlines. In fact, if you look at all storms from 1900 to 2005 and imagine today’s populations on the coasts, as Roger Pielke Jr., and his colleagues did in a 2008 “Natural Hazards Review” paper, you would see that the worst hurricane would have actually happened in 1926.

If it happened today, the Great Miami storm would have caused from $140 billion to $157 billion in damages. (Hurricane Katrina, the costliest storm in U.S. history, caused $100 billion in losses.) “There has been no trend in the number or intensity of storms at landfall since 1900,” says Pielke, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “The storms themselves haven’t changed.”

What’s changed is what we’ve put in storms’ way. Crowding together in coastal cities puts us at risk on a few levels. First, it is harder for us to evacuate before a storm because of gridlock. And in much of the developing world, people don’t get the kinds of early warnings that Americans get. So large migrant populations — usually living in flimsy housing — get flooded out year after year. That helps explain why Asia has repeatedly been the hardest hit area by disasters in recent years.

Secondly, even if we get everyone to safety, we still have more stuff in harm’s way than ever before. So each big hurricane costs more than the big one before it, even controlling for inflation.”

You can read the full article by going here. The Center for the Epidemology of Disasters, also has some useful data to show the trend.

I should note that the North Coast is not easily comparible in terms of shear population or rates of growth to places like Mumbai or Miami-Dade.  We have seen, however, an increasing trend towards establishing wealthy second home development in the region (thus increasing our potential for greater losses).  With a wave of new retirements within the Baby Boomers, we can expect to see more of this in the long-run.  Communities such as Tillamook and Warrenton have also extended their business development into floodplains and low-lying areas on estuaries (also increasing the potential for losses when high water comes).  What is the take-home lesson here? Coastal communities must think in terms of development that will make them more resilient in the face of storms and floods, not more vulnerable.  That means thinking about where we place development, how we manage the natural systems that protect us from the worst of storm damage, and ways to increase prepardeness among the incoming population.


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