Written by Nadia Czebiniak, ESLLC 2018-2019
Although climate change is leading to a loss of diversity and ecosystems across the globe, it’s more dangerous implications of extreme weather and impact on the water cycle are often overlooked or disregarded. These are, however, the effects that will most greatly impact society, putting many, especially the urban and rural poor, at risk.
One of the most glaring and immediate impacts of climate change is more radicalized weather patterns. 2017 was record breaking in the strength and number of storms that hit the United States and Caribbean, as well as in the speed with which they gained strength. In the face of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, many areas, especially developing countries in the Caribbean, were hit hard multiple times in quick succession, and weren’t given the chance to recover in between storms. Most of the people were left without belongings, shelter, food, and electricity. Hospitals and government aid systems were inadequate and unable to handle the surge of citizens in need. As the costs of property damages and the death toll rose higher and higher, many looked for a root cause of the extreme weather; the culprit, unsurprisingly, was climate change.
Over the last century the number of extreme weather events to hit the United States has risen in an almost perfect exponential curve, increasing to almost twelve times more than in 1900s. The explanation for this trend is simple: as global temperatures rise, nascent storms in the Atlantic Ocean have access to higher levels of humidity and evaporating sea water. With more resources, the storms are able to grow larger faster than ever before; this foreboding cycle will continue as long as global warming does.
For the larger cities of Houston, Jacksonville, and San Juan, mass devastation was due more in part to sustained torrential rains rather than sudden gale force winds and lightning. Born directly from increased temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, the downpours that hit these areas caused massive flooding that collected in city streets and stayed for days. Most of these areas were built on wetlands, which would normally have been able to soak up excess water and redistribute it. But in a city of impenetrable concrete, the water flooded the sewer systems, collected in the streets, and was unable to drain. The result was millions in property damage, lasting refugees, and a higher death toll.
Looking forward, policy makers are changing building drainage regulations, and scientists are developing more permeable alternatives to concrete that will alleviate some of the flooding while helping to replenish the aquifers below. Nonprofits like the World Wildlife Foundation are creating awareness for the issue of water sustainability. Climate change is affecting so much more than just the biodiversity and ecology of the planet, it’s affecting us in ways that could not have been predicted. From melting ice caps to superstorms, our impact on the earth is ever changing, and, as we begin to better understand it, intensely interconnected. Today’s global society, being as similarly interconnected as it is, will be affected in a variety of ways as well. The previously overlooked but growing implications of extreme weather and disruption of the water cycle are predicted to grow to crisis proportions, dealing a heavy blow to regional economies, and hurting the rural and urban poor as their first victims.