Understanding Irma, Harvey and a world underwater!
Explaining the hurricanes, monsoons and floods of our warming world
By: Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik
Photo Credit: Punit Paranjpe, Reuters
At the time of writing, Irma, the most powerful known hurricane in the history of Atlantic, is devastating the Northeastern Caribbean.
St Maarten and Barbuda have suffered unspeakable destruction.
Monsoonal storms and floods have killed over a thousand people in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, forcing millions from their communities.
Over the last weeks, we have also seen torrential rains ravage countless homes across our shared planet, from Yemen, to Mexico, to Nigeria.
Much has been written about these deluges.
What follows is not an attempt to add to the litany of words, but to bring ideas together for the time-starved reader.
To begin, it’s important to clear the air.
The idea of a natural disaster is misguided.
All climate-driven human catastrophes are caused by the interaction of two things: climate conditions and societal conditions.
Whenever you see a news story relating to an environmental disaster, it’s important to look out for both types of conditions.
Here are some short explainers that can hopefully be of use to you, and help you to understand the expressions of our warming world.
A flooded neighbourhood in Makurdi, Benue in Nigeria. Photo Credit: Environews Nigeria.
In every one of these incidents, we see intense environmental conditions: powerful winds, torrential rains, storm surges.
Many of these conditions are part of the natural rhythyms and seasons of the planet, but increasingly, climate change is making its mark.
Where can the authorship of climate change be found?
Storms are complex.
The atmospheric science around hurricanes, monsoons and climate change is still developing, often challenging our intuitions.
But this much is clear.
What temperature rise and resulting climate change do is disrupt patterns of weather.
Heat waves become longer, hotter and more regular.
Rains become more torrential, more concentrated, more dispersed.
Droughts become longer, more intense and extensive.
Floods become more frequent, forceful, and destructive.
Extreme heat becomes more common and forceful.
As climate scientist Katharine Haydoe explains, climate change takes familiar weather patterns and “[puts] them on steroids.”
In relation to water, such patterns interact in important ways.
Rising temperatures accelerate the process of evaporation, removing more water from land, lakes and rivers.
That means our air carries higher levels of moisture: when it rains, it rains harder.
This is defined by the Clausius-Clapeyron relation: for every 1C rise in temperature, the air can hold 7% more water.
The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere traps heat, raising the temperatures of both the atmosphere and the ocean.
Warmer ocean water fuels monsoons and hurricanes; Irma is currently travelling over water 1C warmer than normal.
In the Himalayas, rising temperatures increase glacial melt, raising the level of rivers fed by glaciers; this in turn, increases the probability of flooding.
Climate change does not directly cause. It inflames, it exacerbates, it increases risks, it loads the dice. Such words may feel evasive, but they are more accurate. Rather than the pain itself, climate change is like a wind that blows on all the embers that are already there. It’s the detonator, not the explosive.
Models predict that extreme rain events will be more frequent, will extend to unprecedented areas, and will experience. Such events will defy our own expectations; Hurricane Harve, classed as a “500-year” storm, is the third such storm to hit Houston in three years.
Many have noted that the climate extremes we are seeing may become the “new normal”, but even this is misleading. Under current trends and scenarios, the “new normal” may be a world where the barrier of expectation is always pushed further back, a horizon of pain in constant retreat.
The severity of a storm is only part of the equation of climate violence.
The societies, the structures, the buildings, the healthcare systems, and the ecologies that storms meet will determine their impacts.
So be attentive to infrastructure.
Be attentive to response systems, to the resources and deployment of emergency services.
Be attentive to how evacuations unfold.
Be attentive to natural infrastructure.
We know that wetlands, forests, mangroves and other ecosystems play vital roles in flood control. What is the state of such ecosystems in areas hit by storms? What actions have societies taken to clear or care for such ecosystems?
Be attentive to poverty. To history. To corruption. To how a city has been planned. To state neglect and state priorities. To where budget cuts have been made. To a region’s history of disaster. To how environmental risks have been denied and ignored. To wider histories of dispossession and vulnerability.
Be attentive to inequalities. To the imposed neglect of communities. Who lives in flood plains or flood ways? Which populations have been overlooked? How does climate violence affect different groups in different ways?
Be attentive to reconstruction. To flood insurance. To conflicts of interest between recovery and profitable construction.
To help illustrate the importance of human context and social conditions, here are just some examples from the last weeks.
San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, is one of the major cities affected by the path of Irma, and faces major power outage from the impact of the storm. Some areas could be left without power for up to half a year. But what explains the fragility of the country’s energy grid? The region’s decade-long recession, a longstanding process of austerity, the country’s debt burden, a historical process of colonial impoverishment, all contribute.
In Houston, buffeted by Harvey, despite numerous warnings, few measures were implemented to prepare or adapt a city for such events.
Safety was sacrificed on the altar of urban expansion.
Water-absorbing wetlands were paved over, replaced with concrete.
Over thirty percent of coastal prairies, basins that can catch water, were cleared through development in the last two twenty-five years.
Thousands of homes were built in areas highly vulnerable to flooding.
In central Nigeria, mainly in the state of Benue, over 100,000 people have been displaced by torrential rains and flooding.
Ill preparation, clogged waterways, poor drainage system, absent long-term planning, and inadequate dam management in Nigeria and up-river Cameroon, all contributed to the toll.
In Bihar, West Bengal and Assad, hundreds of flooded villages have been deserted and abandoned. Inequality, poverty, unpreparedness, and absent infrastructure all play protagonist roles in aggravating such monsoonal impacts.
The city of Mumbai has been badly affected by days of incessant rainfall, ten times the usual levels. Dozens have been killed, hospitals flooded, and buildings collapsed. Such torrential rain and devastating recalls late July in 2005, when similar severe rains devastated the city, claiming hundreds of lives, washing thousands of homes away. Stagnating floodwaters spread disease and led to outbreaks of diarrhoea, leptospirosis and dengue.
But as we understand Mumbai’s floods, where does part of the blame lie?
Majorly, in relentless poverty and reckless urbanisation.
Major development schemes narrowed riverways, destroyed mangroves, and depleted water bodies. A report by a commission of concerned citizens in wake of the 2005 floods wrote, “the future of Mumbai is being strangulated by the politician-builder nexus, which has vitiated even the redevelopment of slums”. Profiteering does not protect.
Even the breadth of a disaster response is determined by disparity: compare the budget of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency ($15.5 billion), with India’s equivalent authority ($100 million).
Across all these countries and cases, the law of impact inequality holds: the poorest, the marginalized, the oppressed, the ignored, the subjugated, and the forgotten, will all be disproportionately affected by disaster, concentrated in those areas with higher environmental risk.
This tragic law meets a bitter reality: not every human life, not every neighbourhood, not every city, not every country, is worth the same.
This is perhaps best represented in the coverage of established media outlets, whose eye is rarely equitable. In the last weeks, the known death toll of floods and mudslides affecting Congo, Niger, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone was twenty-five times higher than that of Harvey; but such incidents were mere footnotes in our published imagination.
Understanding Pain and Recovery
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that unless we are fully present, we often struggle to understand the sadness wrought by climate violence.
Our newspapers focus on numbers: lives lost, houses destroyed, people displaced, economic damage. These become the memorialised markers of suffering, but they fail to capture the sheer volume of possible pain.
What happens when you returned to your flooded home or village? What registers the work of “recovery”: searching for loved ones, burying bodies, clearing, cleaning, calculating costs, scrubbing mold, coping, handling mental strain and anguish? What speaks of the emptied bank accounts, the swept crops, the price of disaster food, rent owed to landlords for unliveable homes, demolished possessions?
The media is a caravansary that moves on. Within weeks, storm seasons will end. Waters will recede. Politicians will assure. We will return to the public spectacle of scandals and statements. The importance of tackling, preventing and bracing for climate violence will fade into the background of urgency. Cameras will turn away from the daily mundanity of “recovery”, impossible for so many. The dimming of media coverage will need to be replaced by the power of our memory and imagination.
Such silences and disparities in coverage reminds us that as we run further into an era of accelerating climate violence, we do not yet have an apparatus of attention that may allow for a humane, proportionate response to our global ecological crisis.
Even more than that, these storms are just a fraction of the panorama of climate violence.
Climate change isn’t just about discrete episodes of extreme weather: floods, hurricanes, rains, mudslides, droughts and heat waves.
It’s also the slow violence of gradually shifting environmental patterns: the patient depletion of water bodies, the ongoing loss of soil fertility, the long-term movement of rains, the growing unpredictability of weather.
We are currently not prepared for an era of encroaching environmental violence; the urgency of our reality is not synchronised with the urgency of our actions.
But we continue to hold the power both to significantly reduce the worst possibilities of climate change, and prepare for its inevitabilities by building fairer and more flourishing societies.
Let us hope that the horrific storms of the last weeks can serve as a wake-up call.
Press link for more: World at 1C