Climate change is redrawing the disaster map

Climate change is a global problem that is causing new natural disasters in different parts of the world. Communities are affected by these disasters and must adapt to the new realities that arise as a consequence of this phenomenon. Often, they face a new crisis while still recovering from a previous one.

Climate disasters are not simply limited to the places where we are used to seeing them, such as tropical storms or wildfires.

This summer, the United States has witnessed a series of natural disasters that have affected different regions of the country. California, known for its historic drought and devastating wildfires, has also suffered the unexpected impact of Tropical Storm Hilary, which hit Los Angeles this week. Hawaii faces a double threat: Not only are hurricanes expected to hit the East Coast, but they must also deal with the nightmare of smoke pollution from fires burning hundreds of miles away. Hawaii's native vegetation should not burn, but the fires have seriously affected Maui.

“We see an increasing magnitude of certain types of disasters. We see an increasing socioeconomic impact of disasters. We're also seeing disasters in places where we don't normally see certain types of disasters, and different types of disasters interacting with each other,” says Andrew Kruczkiewicz, senior associate at Columbia Climate's International Research Institute for Climate and Society. School.

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, human activity, specifically greenhouse gas emissions from the use of fossil fuels, has become the leading cause of increasingly extreme weather around the world. With the increase in greenhouse gases, the temperature on both land and sea increases. This phenomenon leads to more extreme weather conditions, such as more intense storms and hurricanes fueled by the heat of the water. What allowed Hurricane Hilary to intensify into a Category 4 storm in the Pacific was its strength enough to remain a tropical storm over Baja California and southern California.

In contrast, a warming climate is causing landscapes to dry out. This makes forests and grasslands prone to catching fire easily. When a fire breaks out, there is the potential for it to become a megafire due to the abundant flammable matter available. Where is the fire? There is smoke. And suddenly, prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke is a new public health risk in large areas of the United States. During the month of June, New York City had the unfortunate title of being temporarily considered the most polluted city in the world. This was because a dense layer of smoke from the fires in Quebec traveled approximately 500 miles and darkened the New York skies.

Unsurprisingly, the environmental catastrophe that has recently occurred cannot be separated from the previous damage that the area has suffered. It's not surprising to hear Maui residents say that the chaos and devastation of the last month is not considered a "natural" disaster. During the American colonial period, major changes occurred in the landscape of the islands, which had significant consequences on subsequent events. The establishment of sugarcane and pineapple plantations had a devastating impact on the rich native ecology. This scenario set the stage for later events, such as the fire that occurred later. During agricultural fallow periods, when fields are left bare of crops, there is a risk of invasive and highly flammable grasses taking over. This phenomenon introduces a new danger of wildfires, and this risk is further increased by climate change that worsens drought.

During this month, Lahaina, Hawaii, was devastated by the deadliest wildfires in its history. This city used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii before it became a popular tourist spot that made it difficult for native residents to live there. Once residents have dealt with the fires, they must now be alert to another possible threat: land grabs by real estate agents and developers seeking to profit from the tragedy. It is important to note that fires are not the only reason families could lose their homes.

In disaster situations, it is common to see that historically marginalized communities are hardest hit. “The communities that are disproportionately feeling the impact are low-income populations, those who are systematically underprioritized and traditionally underserved,” Kruczkiewicz says. "That's always the case with disasters, especially when we see them getting worse."

When calamities like wildfires and hurricanes encounter, they can have devastating effects. An example of this is when an offshore hurricane fans the flames of recent wildfires on Maui. Burn scars in California increased the risk of flash flooding and landslides due to Tropical Storm Hilary. In climate science, the term "composite event" is used to describe a phenomenon in which multiple types of threats accumulate. These events often have a more severe impact than the sum of each of the parties involved.

“The combination is like when it pours rain... Before you can fully recover, you get hit again. So, the effect of that series of events is worse because you live in that framework of possibility of multiple dangers,” says Gonzalo Pita, associate research scientist at the John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering and director of the MSE in Systems Engineering, whose work focuses on disaster risk.

There is the possibility of taking measures to prevent these disasters from getting worse, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. However, since people are already facing multiple new dangers at the same time, it is crucial to prepare for the unexpected. “The situation we are experiencing now in the country emphasizes the need to be proactive at the administrative, state and federal levels,” says Pita. As you mention, it is prudent to consider re-evaluating emergency plans and the data used by policymakers to assess risks. These last few months have shown how the environment can change quickly, demonstrating the importance of staying updated and prepared for any eventuality.

With information