Halloween Horror Story: 5 Scariest Aspects of Climate Change
By Casey Ivanovich
Halloween has arrived, and it's time once again for goblins, gremlins and ghost stories.
But there's another threat brewing that's much more frightening—because it's real.
An unrecognizable world is quickly creeping up on us as climate change progresses—and the anticipated impacts are enough to rattle anyone's skeleton.
Here are five of the scariest aspects of climate change. Read on if you dare…
1. Extreme Weather is Becoming More Extreme
A changing climate paves the way for extreme weather events to live up to their name.
In 2017 alone we saw fatal events worldwide, including:
- The most severe drought in Somalian history.
- Devastating wildfires in northern California.
- Weeks of heavy rainfall and flooding in Nepal, Bangladesh and India.
The fingerprints of climate change can be found on each of these events.
As global temperatures continue to rise, heat waves are expected to become more intense, frequent and longer lasting.
Scientists also predict that rainfall patterns will continue to shift, increasing regional risk for widespread drought and flooding.
Drought conditions may also prompt wildfires to occur more frequently and within a longer fire season. The wildfire season in the western U.S. is already weeks longer than in previous years.
Hurricanes are also influenced by climate change. Rising sea surface temperatures, a moister atmosphere and changing atmospheric circulation patterns have the potential to increase hurricanes' power and travel paths.
Extreme weather intensification impacts human health and development in many ways—extreme heat events directly generate health hazards such as heat stroke, while drought and wildfires threaten crop and ecosystem stability.
The 2017 hurricane season has already demonstrated the shocking consequences of intensified hurricanes and flooding, with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria killing more than 150 people and causing as much as $300 billion in damages in the U.S. alone.
2. Tipping Points Loom in Near Future
A particularly alarming facet of climate change is the threat of irreversible changes to climate conditions, called "tipping elements."
These components of the climate system earn their title from a possession of critical thresholds, or "tipping points," beyond which a tiny change can dramatically alter the state of the system.
Many tipping elements have been identified by scientists and some may have already passed their critical threshold. For example, a vicious cycle of sea ice melt has already been triggered, leading scientists to predict that Arctic summers will be ice-free before mid-century.
Imminent tipping points also exist for melting ice sheets, particularly those of Greenland and West Antarctica, where full ice sheet collapse could result in global sea level rise of up to 20 feet and 16 feet respectively.
Coral reefs too are rapidly approaching a grave tipping point. Essential relationships between algae and corals begin to break down as ocean waters rise in temperature and acidity. Without stabilizing these changes, the majority of global reef systems may collapse before global temperatures reach a two-degree Celsuis warming threshold.
3. Coastal Communities Battle Sea Level Rise
Sea level rise is one of the most visible impacts of climate change, as increased coastal erosion physically erases continental borders.
As the climate warms, ocean waters expand and ice sheets and glaciers melt. Both factors contribute to a rising sea level at an accelerating rate. Communities in Alaska and several Pacific Islands are already fleeing rising seas—relocating as their villages are engulfed and eroded.
Rising sea levels also intensify damages from extreme weather events such as hurricanes. A higher sea level allows storm surges to grow in height and volume, exacerbating flooding and associated damages.
As water levels continue to rise, more coastal communities will feel the consequences. Many major cities are located on coastlines, with almost 40 percent of U.S. citizens living in coastal cities.
Protecting people from this creeping threat will be difficult and costly—as we've already seen in the aftermath of coastal storms such as Superstorm Sandy.
4. Humans Are Nearing Uncharted Climate Territory
A globally averaged two-degree Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming over preindustrial levels is the most widely suggested threshold we need to stay "well" below.
The threshold was first proposed by William Nordhaus in the 1970's, in part because of its historical significance—the human species has never lived during a time in which global temperatures were equivalent to two-degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
The unprecedented nature of this benchmark provided a foundation for alarm that carried the two-degrees Celsius value into political and scientific discussions for decades.
In a changing climate, unprecedented events will become the norm.
In some cases, they already have.
As infectious diseases spread to previously untouched regions and an Arctic ozone hole threatens to open, people are beginning to catch the first glimpses of the new world we are creating—one that is in many ways more hostile and dangerous than the one we leave behind.
5. Many American Politicians Deny the Problem
Perhaps the only thing more terrifying than the impacts of climate change is the overwhelming denial of their existence by some political leaders in the U.S.
The Paris agreement served as a major step forward in promoting climate change mitigation policy on an international scale, with almost every nation agreeing to tackle this looming threat.
Then in June, President Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the agreement. That means the U.S. will be one of only two countries—out of almost 200—failing to participate in the accords.
The same efforts towards dismantling U.S. climate progress can be seen in recent national policy. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt (who recently claimed that carbon dioxide is not a major contributor to global warming) is perhaps the most visible of an exhausting list of leaders within the current administration who deny climate science. The administration is trying to undermine or reverse policies addressing climate change, including the Clean Power Plan and information about climate change is vanishing from official agency websites.
The rest of the globe is striving to implement meaningful climate policy, including China's unparalleled growth in renewable energy support. Soon the U.S. will be left in the dust in the race for a greener world.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Then do something about it.
We can't protect you from the monsters hiding under your bed. But combating the ominous impacts of climate change is a much more hopeful endeavor.
For more information on how you can help, click here.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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