Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

CLIMATE CHANGE AND NATURAL DISASTERS

While often disassociated from conversations about natural disasters, science has shown that our planet’s changing climate is responsible for the increasing frequency and magnitude of natural disasters. As such, climate change (i.e., changes in atmospheric behavior over an extended period) and disaster management should be viewed through a holistic and interconnected lens.

Additionally, natural disasters should not be considered completely independent of one another. One natural disaster may create the environment for another one to occur. For example, climate change increases drought, and drought creates an ideal environment for wildfires.

Below are some of the ways that climate change exacerbates natural disasters as well as some resiliency tips for you and your community to consider as you seek to mitigate future disaster risk.

HEAT WAVES

The American Meteorological Society defines heat waves as a “period of abnormally and uncomfortably hot and usually humid weather.” Extreme heat poses a legitimate risk to communities across the globe. For instance, the European Heat Wave of 2003 resulted in an estimated 70,000 deaths. Furthermore, heat waves pose a great threat to the natural environment, especially biological ecosystems and species that cannot survive repetitive bouts of extreme heat; from salmon in the Pacific Northwest to the Great Barrier Reefs in Australia – aquatic species are especially threatened because rising heat reduces oxygen in the waters.

THE CORRELATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE

As heat trapping emissions become more concentrated in the atmosphere and temperatures rise, extreme heat waves are expected to become longer, more frequent, and more severe. Although heat waves are a normal occurrence, the frequency with which they occur is likely to continue growing as the general atmospheric climate continues to warm, as outlined in the visual below.

Climate Temperature Increases and Extreme Heat: Source

HEATWAVE RESILIENCE TIPS FOR COMMUNITIES 

  • Reduce the urban heat island effect by installing green roofs and cool pavement;
  • Improve energy efficiency to reduce demand on the electricity grid during heat waves; and
  • Plant trees to provide natural shade and cooling.

DROUGHT

Drought has been a huge problem in the US over the past 20 years. This summer, the vast majority of the Western US experienced abnormally dry conditions – some areas suffering from extreme to exceptional drought. Droughts can threaten the agricultural sector and water supplies in communities across the country.

THE CORRELATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Over time, increasing global temperatures have resulted and will continue to result in more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow, earlier snow melt, and increased evaporation. When there is less snow overall and snow melts earlier in the year, it leaves ecosystems, agricultural lands, and drinking water reserves parched by late summer. Drought is a symptom of climate change and it amplifies as global temperatures increase.

DROUGHT RESILIENCE TIPS FOR COMMUNITIES 

  • Identify areas where water re-use systems could be implemented;
  • Improve watershed sustainability and reduce irrigation demand through partnering with local agricultural communities to fund and implement sustainable water-use practices;
  • Run public education campaigns about drought, the importance of water conservation, and water efficient landscape design; and
  • Establish processes in collaboration with local utilities to encourage water conservation from businesses and industrial facilities.

WILDFIRES

This year alone, over 7 million acres of land have been impacted by wildfires and over 42,000 fires have ignited across the US. Wildfires pose a huge threat to human safety and property, and they also pose a dire threat to wildlife and natural habitats.

THE CORRELATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Drying and drought caused by an increase in global temperatures creates the perfect environment and fuel for wildfires. In other words, increases in evapotranspiration and spring snow melt leaves vegetation dry and vulnerable to both human and natural fire-starting activities (i.e., bonfires, fireworks, cigarettes, lightening). It is estimated that climate change in the American West has accounted for half the increase in vegetation dryness since 1979.

WILDFIRE RESILIENCE TIPS FOR COMMUNITIES 

  • Establish zoning, building codes, and landscape management guidelines that reduce or discourage development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI);
  • Ensure proper vegetation and forest management, in collaboration with ecological organizations and experts, through debris removal and brush thinning; and
  • Conduct public education campaigns and outreach to stress the importance of preventative and informed behavior.

FLOODS

Flooding occurs every year in the US, sometimes as a result of hurricanes and sometimes entirely independent from other natural disasters. Almost every year since 1980, at least one billion-dollar flood event has occurred in the US. Flooding can destroy buildings, infrastructure, and ecosystems; contaminate drinking water; and take lives.

THE CORRELATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Flooding has been a long-standing threat to communities in the US, but it has increased in severity due to climate change. As the climate gets warmer, ground moisture and saturation decreases, preventing regular and effective absorption of liquids into soil. Additionally, warmer air can hold more moisture, resulting in heavier precipitation. Heavy precipitation events drop 55 percent more rain in the Northeast, 42 percent more in the Midwest, and 27 percent more in the Southeast, compared with heavy precipitation events 50 years ago. Sea level rise due to climate change will also likely increase flooding in coastal communities in the years to come.

FLOOD RESILIENCE TIPS FOR COMMUNITIES 

  • Build and design flood-resilient watersheds through maintaining soil cover and vegetation, removing unnecessary impervious surfaces (i.e., concrete, buildings), and allowing room for water accumulation through retention ponds;
  • Restore natural watersheds where possible, rather than straight manmade channels with no flow speed reduction;
  • Establish zoning and building codes that restrict development in high-risk, flood-prone areas; and
  • Encourage community residents to obtain flood insurance in high-risk regions through public education and campaigns.

HURRICANES

Hurricanes are one of the most damaging, annually occurring natural disasters that we experience in the US. Some hurricanes, like hurricane Katrina (2005), Harvey (2017), Maria (2017), and Michael (2018), caused long-lasting social and economic impacts on affected communities.

THE CORRELATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Hurricanes result from low pressure zones created by warm seas. The low pressure zone draws air to it with enough force to rotate winds around the core up to 185 miles per hour. Climate change has resulted in warming seas and therefore a greater frequency and intensification of low-pressure zones, tropical storms, and hurricanes. Additionally, rising sea levels from climate change expand flooding zones impacted by water surges during a hurricane.

Frequency of North Atlantic Hurricanes: Source

HURRICANE RESILIENCE TIPS FOR COMMUNITIES 

  • Develop grassroots public engagement and education campaigns to provide hurricane preparation information to rural, impoverished, and underserved populations most impacted by hurricanes;
  • Complete needed infrastructure updates proactively, especially infrastructure designed to contain water or protect community assets (i.e., levees, dams, water treatment structures);
  • Establish zoning and building codes that restrict development in high-risk flood prone areas and require hurricane-informed construction methods; and
  • Restore and protect natural hurricane and flooding buffers like wetlands and marshes.

HOW HAGERTY CAN HELP

At Hagerty we have the expertise, passion, and commitment to assist your community with resilience-building efforts. From supporting pre- and post-disaster recovery planning efforts to hazard mitigation planning projects and navigating funding streams and developing project applications, we are here to help.

Please reach out to April Geruso, Hagerty’s Director of Resilience, to discuss any potential support that Hagerty can provide.


Loren Switzer is an Associate with Hagerty Consulting’s Preparedness Division. Loren supports several public and private sector pre- and post-disaster planning and recovery projects. Loren earned her Master of Public Administration (MPA) from the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs and focused on environmental studies throughout her undergraduate education.