Scientists think they know, in principle, how to tame hurricanes and reduce storm surge risks.
A huge ash plume rises from the Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption in 1991. Photo credit: Ed Wolfe / U.S. Geological Survey
All it would take would be a stratosphere full of sulphate aerosols sufficient to dim the sun, lower tropic ocean temperatures and reduce the hazard of the kind of windstorm that hit New York in 2012 and New Orleans in 2005 with devastating consequences.
Hurricanes are likely to impose increasing costs as the planet’s climate changes. However, there is a little more to the solution than a simple darkening of the upper skies.
The quantities of sulphate discharge needed to make a difference would be the equivalent of the catastrophic Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption that scorched the Philippines in 1991. And there could also be other unwelcome consequences.
Test of Hypothesis
Polar scientist John Moore and colleagues reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that their exercise was a test of a hypothesis: a “qualitative indication” that geoengineering could help reduce hurricanes.
Co-author Ben Kravitz, a climate scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the U.S., said: “We’re looking at possibilities now, in case the world needs these options down the road.”
As humans continue to burn fossil fuels, levels of greenhouse gases will build up in the lower atmosphere, global average temperatures will rise and heatwaves, floods and windstorms could become more frequent, more intense or both.
So the hurricane-suppressing scientists worked entirely from climate simulations to see if eruptions could in fact calm some of the weather extremes predicted under climate change.
New Orleans devastated by floods after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Photo credit: NOAA Aviation Weather Center / Wikimedia Commons
Although climate scientists have repeatedly said that only a sharp reduction in carbon dioxide emissions will have any impact in the long run, a number of groups have tested the other possible answer: the considered and wilful alteration of the planet’s climate through geoengineering.
The results so far have been either mixed or downright unpromising. Scientists have looked at the idea of “whitening” the Arctic to prevent the loss of ice; they have explored the idea of tapping energy from the oceans to reduce global temperatures; and they have confirmed that sulphate aerosol discharges could severely disrupt world rainfall patterns and make things worse for millions.
The limited case of hurricane control, however, suggests that it might be effective—if expensive.
To mimic the effect of a Pinatubo-type eruption, researchers would have to lift to airliner altitudes roughly a quarter of all the sulphates produced by human industry in any one year.
In the lower atmosphere, these cause respiratory illnesses. At altitude, these could lower the global temperature by about half a degree Celsius for a year or two.
But they could also affect the monsoon rain system that nourishes hundreds of millions in Asia, and they could damage the ozone layer that screens most humans from harmful ultraviolet radiation.
Over time, it would reduce sea surface temperatures and reduce the probability of Katrina-scale hurricanes and devastating storm surges of the kind that swept through New York and New Orleans in the company of the hurricane-force winds.
Benefits and Risks
But that wouldn’t mean it was a safe option. “This is a narrow study,” Kravitz says. “Geoengineering researchers have to very carefully categorize the other benefits and risks, and hand off that information to the decision makers.”
Coincidentally, another study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal confirms that real volcanic eruptions, if they happened in the summertime, could not only cool the northern hemisphere, but also possibly generate an El Niño pattern in the Pacific and even have an impact on ocean currents in the Atlantic.
Since El Niño is linked to devastating floods on the west coast of the Americas and drought and fires in the Indonesian rainforests, and since the Atlantic currents are an integral part of the European climate machinery, the consequences might go far beyond hurricane control.
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<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="63731ca7097bffc9347667697aea3206"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_TUc0iDWzfE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
History Reverberates on Native Lands<p>Native communities in North America have been disrupted and displaced for centuries. Many face long-standing food and water <a href="http://www.nativepartnership.org/site/DocServer/2017-PWNA-NPRA-Food-Insecurity-Project-Grow.pdf?docID=7106" target="_blank">inequities</a> that are further complicated by this pandemic.</p><p>On the Navajo reservation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, 76% of households already <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235390130_High_levels_of_household_food_insecurity_on_the_Navajo_Nation" target="_blank">have trouble affording enough healthy food</a>, and the nearest grocery store is often hours away. COVID-related restrictions have further curtailed access to food supplies.</p><p>Clean water for basic sanitary measures like hand-washing is also scarce. Native Americans are <a href="http://uswateralliance.org/sites/uswateralliance.org/files/Closing%20the%20Water%20Access%20Gap%20in%20the%20United%20States_DIGITAL.pdf" target="_blank">19 times more likely</a> to lack indoor plumbing than whites in the U.S. Nearly one-third of Navajo households <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-hits-indian-country-hard-exposing-infrastructure-disparities-n1186976" target="_blank">lack access to running water</a>.</p><p>Many <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6915e3.htm" target="_blank">health issues</a> that can increase COVID-19 mortality rates occur at high levels among Native Americans. These <a href="http://www.ncai.org/news/articles/2020/03/18/the-national-congress-of-american-indians-calls-for-more-attention-to-covid-19-impacts-to-indian-country" target="_blank">underlying</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30893-X" target="_blank">preexisting</a> conditions – things like hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease – are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6913e2.htm" target="_blank">linked to diet</a> and stem from <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank">disruption and replacement</a> of Indigenous food systems.</p>
High Exposure Rates<p>These factors have clear health impacts. On the Navajo reservation, for instance, through May 27, 2020, <a href="https://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2020/May/FOR%20IMMEDIATE%20RELEASE%20-%201620%20recoveries_102%20new%20cases%20of%20COVID-19_and%20one%20more%20death%20reported.pdf" target="_blank">4,944 people</a> out of a population of 173,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, and 159 had died.</p><p>This infection rate per capita exceeds those in hot spots such as <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2020/05/19/navajo-nation-has-most-coronavirus-infections-per-capita-in-us-beating-new-york-new-jersey/#11a4fac08b10" target="_blank">New York and New Jersey</a>. Importantly, however, it may also reflect a much <a href="https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/04/19/navajo-nation-has-higher/" target="_blank">more proactive approach to testing</a> on reservations than in many other jurisdictions.</p><p>The fact that elderly people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 could worsen the pandemic's effects in Indian Country. Elders are the <a href="https://ais.washington.edu/research/publications/spirits-our-whaling-ancestors" target="_blank">keepers of traditional knowledge, tribal languages and culture</a> – legacies whose loss already threatens the persistence of indigenous communities.</p><p>Elders also play key roles in preserving traditional plant and medicine knowledge. In the absence of COVID-19 interventions from Western medicine, many elders have been called on to perform healing practices, which increases their exposure risk.</p>
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Bold Action in Native Communities<p>Native communities are taking decisive action to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They're imposing aggressive <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/us/coronavirus-navajo-nation.html" target="_blank">quarantine</a> measures like lockdowns, curfews and border closures. Communities are <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/18/covidcoronavirus-native-american-lummi-nation-trailblazing-steps" target="_blank">ramping up health care capacity</a> and elder support services, and banishing nontribal members who <a href="https://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/oglala-sioux-council-banishes-non-member-with-covid-19-from-reservation/article_60b665c3-9d1b-5d48-a576-51774e4fb41a.html" target="_blank">violate travel restrictions</a>.</p><p>Other strategies include helping hunters <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/ammo-fuel-for-hunters-to-feed-others-Ki3zK6du-ky-UogoB9-aNQ" target="_blank">provide traditional foods</a> to their communities, <a href="https://ndncollective.org/indigenizing-and-decolonizing-community-care-in-response-to-covid-19/" target="_blank">mobilizing to support tribal health care workers</a>, and <a href="https://www.ehn.org/coronavirus-native-americans-2645923635.html" target="_blank">linking the pandemic and the climate crisis</a>. Looking ahead to a post-COVID future, we believe one priority should be attending to <a href="http://www.beacon.org/As-Long-as-Grass-Grows-P1445.aspx" target="_blank">front-line environmental justice struggles</a> that center tribes' sovereignty to act on their own behalf at all times, not just during national crises.</p>
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