Minimizing the destruction from major hurricanes

Climate change is a hot issue throughout the world. It has been that way since a few decades ago-when we realized something a lot of things were changing on our planet. The ozone layer over Antarctica was thinning, Carbon Dioxide levels were rising, ice cover on earth was deteriorating, animals were losing their habitats, and weather events were changing. Once we have been made aware of these problems we are facing, we have been trying to predict where these changes were headed and what types of impacts they can have on humans and how this will affect our way of life in the future. This research contains the disciplines of meteorology, environmental science/engineering, and civil engineering, which will all explain why we have the problems we have, and what we can do to fix them.

For starters, to understand the problems we are facing, we must first acknowledge the issue and then figure out solutions. This study focuses on how climate change affects the intensity of cyclones, how much damage they cause, and potential solutions to prevent less damage in the future. So the first question asks “What is going on? What does climate change have to do with intensifying cyclones?” Well, for starters we must examine what is happening to our climate in the first place and how humans have contributed to the climate in recent years. Our earth naturally goes through periods of warming and cooling–it has been that way throughout the past 800,000 recorded years. We are able to figure this out by examining small bubbles that are in the ice sheets in Antarctica. These bubbles tell us what the climate was like over the past 800,000 years by seeing the types of gasses present. It has been proven that carbon dioxide levels are what can affect temperature on our planet. How do we know? Consider the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is caused by incoming shortwave radiation from the sun. The radiation allows the planet to heat up during the day when the sun is out. At night, this radiation and

energy escapes the earth’s atmosphere in the form of long-

The greenhouse effect and how it works

wave radiation. The difference between short-wave and long-wave radiation is that short-wave radiation comes from the direct energy source, which in this case is the sun. It travels a lot faster and causes heat and energy transfer at a faster rate. Long-wave radiation is energy that is transmitted at a much slower rate. It takes more time and it generally weaker. Not all the long-wave radiation gets released back into space. The radiation that comes in from the sun gets absorbed by the earth, but some of the outgoing long-wave radiation gets  trapped in the atmosphere. Why does it get trapped? This happens because greenhouse gasses keep the radiation in the atmosphere. The main gasses that cause this are carbon dioxide and methane, as well as a few other trace gasses in the atmosphere. The chart will give a visual of how this process works. 

The chart shows how the solar radiation gets absorbed in our atmosphere and by the surface of the earth and why the incoming radiation is greater than the outgoing radiation. This explains why the greenhouse effect causes the atmosphere to warm up, because some of the radiation gets trapped in the atmosphere by the greenhouse gasses. The more greenhouse gasses that are present, the more heat/energy gets trapped and the higher the overall temperature will be throughout the planet.

So what do ice samples tell us? Well, since we know that if the atmosphere has more carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas affecting the earth), the more heat is trapped, we can prove that the more carbon dioxide that is present in the atmosphere will lead to a warmer overall temperature in the atmosphere. This has been shown over the past 400,000 or so years of data that has been collected. Every time there was a period of warming, the carbon dioxide levels were high and every time there was a period of cooling, the carbon dioxide levels were low.

Vostok ice core records for carbon dioxide concentration and temperature change

The temperature in this chart is shown in red and the carbon dioxide levels are shown in blue. The chart shows the overall temperature change throughout the earth in Celsius. The temperature has varied from -10 under 0 and 4 above. This shows that the temperature has changed throughout these periods of warming and cooling. You may not think 1 or 2 degrees above normal (0) is a big deal, but it can have enormous effects on ecosystems that cannot live above or below a certain temperature. The effects of the rise in temperature can affect the weather events of certain locations. It can cause excessive rain, long periods of drought, and the topic that is affecting the lives of many—extreme weather events.

“The weather varies, but climate change affects the frequencies with which particular weather occurs, including

the frequencies of extreme weather,such as heavy storms, heat waves, and droughts.”(Repetto, “Change” Extreme weather events). Cyclones have particularly been an indicator of modern day climate change. Hurricane Katrina was the first indicator of how climate change is causing more intense storms at a more frequent level. Hurricanes are rated on a scale of intensity based on wind and rainfall—the least intense cyclones are a tropical depression. Then as it intensifies it can become a tropical storm, a category 1, category 2, category 3, category 4, with the most intense storm being at a category 5 which can have winds over 175 miles per hour and can cause severe damage and death. Severe hurricanes are usually classified under a category 3 hurricane or greater.

Infographic: Stormy Season I: Number of Hurricanes Since 1967 | Statista
Hurricanes since 1967
In the most recent decades since 2000, there have been more major hurricanes overall that have caused the most destruction in the U.S and in the Atlantic regions. This includes islands in the Caribbean, and Meso-america aside from the United States. Most of the time, these areas aren’t fully prepared when it comes to the affects of these major hurricanes. There is much uncertainty in forecast models even with the 2 main forecasting models—the GFS and the EURO model. These create a “cone of uncertainty” which shows a projected path of cycles which locates where the cyclone is expected to hit and when. There are a lot of factors which play into this. The cyclone can get stalled between air masses (meaning it can get delayed), a cyclone can easily get misdirected or a cyclone will get re-routed based up upper winds or other weather anomalies. When major hurricanes and cyclones do make land fall, they can cause an enormous amount of damage which can cost millions or billions of damage.
“Placing recent extreme events in the context of past and future climate variability and change would enhance the ability of societies to manage weather and climate-related risks.” (Scott, ‘How climate change affects extreme weather events)
Scientists are still trying to find new ways to forecast, predict and prepare for future weather events, especially given  the destruction of recent hurricane in the Atlantic in the past few years. Not only does the destruction from these events devastate the environment, but they cost a lot of money in destruction. ” Climate change at its most basic level threatens preventable harm to many entities”(Johnstone, “Climate change ethics”) This shows that not only is there room for improvement for forecasting these storms, but we can take more time and use other resources to prevent damage and death in the areas that are being affected by these storms. What is important to note is that in many locations, it has been hard to prepare for major hurricanes because a lot of people do not know what exactly to expect. Each hurricane is different and can cause a certain amount of destruction. Right now with weather forecasting models, we are able to figure out what type of path the storm will take, what the wind temperatures are like and how much rain to expect from these storms. Early warning systems are extremely important with these type of events. People need to be updated on what to expect and when to expect it by. That way they can better prepare for these storms and hopefully try to minimize the amount of lives that get taken from these storms.
Since the climate is changing and causing these more intense storms, not only do we need to make changes in regards to meteorological technology and early warning systems, but we need to take early precautions in regards to infrastructure so we can minimize the damage from these storms. A lot of the damage from these storms consist of destruction of power lines/power loss, damage of roads from uprooted trees, damage from buildings, flooding damaging foundations of houses/buildings, and water damage from flooding during and after these storms. This can be costly because “Climate change increases the unpredictability and between-county inequality of future economic outcomes, effects that may alter the valuation of climate damages beyond their nationally averaged expected costs”(Hsiang et. all, “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States”). This means that climate change will affect the U.S total cost in some areas more than other. Some areas of the Unites States are more costly because they see the impacts from climate change—such as Florida and the regions that are more frequently hit by tropical storms and hurricanes. A good way to go about this is to figure out how to minimize the cost from these storms by potentially implementing better infrastructure for the future.
I believe that Civil engineers and environmental engineers would benefit from working together to prevent this type of damage. However in order to fix something, we must understand what is being done in the first place, and what type of improvements we can make. I was able to interview a Senior project manager civil engineer at the engineering company of Parsons. Parsons has offices not just in the United States, but also in Canada, Europe and other places around the world. They focus on a wide variety of things, but above all, the senior project managers at Parsons corporation in Boston focus on constructing new roads and bridges for the future of New England. My Father, Daniel J. Wilk is a Civil engineer at Parsons who is a senior project manager for the company, and on a personal note- he is also my father. I was curious as to how his company, along with his own personal knowledge, understands and deals with the effects of climate change not only in the New England area, but also in other places that have experienced much damage from these storms. He has been a civil engineer for almost 35 years now and he has a lot of experience in regards to flooding and how storm damage can affect our infrastructure and our highways.
I asked him about his experience with flooding and the costs associated with it, and he told me “I was surprised to know that we only design surface streets for a 10 year event because it would be too expensive to build drainage systems to accommodate all flooding events. Its almost as if when you see catch basins overflowing that’s normal even if there are big events, we have to accept flooding on surface streets because we can’t accommodate for bigger events”. From this I was able to understand that our roads in New England (and a lot of the U.S) are only designed for 10 year events. But this is based on past data, not present or future data. “10 year events” are becoming more common as we see and expect more of a change in climate for the future. Next I thought to ask him about tropical storms and hurricanes. Although they are not as common here as they are in the south eastern United States, they still happen and cause millions of dollars in damage. I asked him what his experience has been in regards to these storms and the damage they cause and he said “Personally I’ve inspected along the mass turnpike and what I noticed was where the pavement meets the edge of the road, there is usually a channel of earth getting washed out—erosion at the road side which works its way into the road and can damage the road. These heavy storms usually really damage our infrastructure”. Not only are our roads only created to withstand 10 year events, but in Massachusetts along the mass turnpike (the major highway in Massachusetts), there seems to be a lot of erosion from these major storms. Erosion can cause major damage to the roads if the road gets damaged underneath. This can cause parts of the road to crack, break off and in other cases, create sinkholes that are a result of the storms affecting the earth underneath the roads themselves.
 In places like New Orleans, it is hard to design roads and other infrastructure based on how often they get damaged. New Orleans floods from major storms including hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina was a primary example of this. Previously, Daniel J. Wilk worked for a company which sent civil engineers and construction workers down to New Orleans to help rebuild after Katrina. I asked him what these people worked on while they were down there and he said “They would repair the roads, culverts etc. Engineers would work with contractors and build things ‘on the fly’, there was no stalling, it had to be quick repair work. Design it and built it. We use ‘design build’ approach now when engineers and contractors work together to design something quickly” meaning that people who went down to help make repairs after the major hurricane in 2005 had to quickly design and rebuild as quickly as they could. This would just be a temporary approach to fix infrastructure after suffering damage from a major storm. This will not withstand future events if it is simply a temporary solution after the damage from storms.
A little background and statistics about Katrina was that Katrina caused a lot of damage to buildings and infrastructure. Most of this was due to flooding from the rainfall and storm surge. In the article ‘Taking the High Ground: FEMA Trailer Siting after Hurricane Katrina’, the authors Daniel P. Aldrich and Kevin Crook give detailed information about the destruction from the storm in New Orleans. The statistics from the damage include that of the floodwaters which ” destroyed 140,000 homes and damaged another 430,000″. This doesn’t account for the destruction of roads, infrastructure and other buildings, but it was a major event that cost billions of dollars in damage. Rebuilding after storms like this can be a big challenge for companies that deal with the process, as well as the politics and communities involved. I asked Dan Wilk about how civil engineers design prior to hurricanes, and his response was “We design retention and detention bases so that when there is a hurricane or a heavy storm event that there’s a lot of storage in storm water management, mostly detention basins that keep runoff from over-topping roads and such. Sometimes we build an embankment and work with hydrologists and other specialists to make sure storm events can be concentrate off the infrastructure”. This means that these detention basins will help to keep the roads from flooding and hold off storm surge as much as possible. This shows a few ways that civil engineers take into consideration while being located in areas that are prone to destruction and flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms.
But the question still remains. What is to come in the future? How can we better prepare for the intensifying storms yet to come and cause damage. I asked Dan Wilk his professional opinion based on what he has seen and experienced over the years. “Pavement design includes several layers of surface—base, sub-base, etc. I think we need to do better with the materials. Super pave is a more durable pavement, but I think we need to come up with better pavement structures to withstand flooding. For example if a road over tops, the top gets saturated and  it can crumble and deteriorate. Stronger pavement structures and maybe ways to keep the pavement dry—scientists need to help come up with better pavement material—maybe even recycles plastic or other materials that we haven’t’ used so we can withstand the events more so than what we have today”, meaning that he hopes that for future events we can come up with better materials to make roads more durable so they wont be so susceptible to destruction from these storms. That would be the best way to go about roads for the future however there are a few other factors we need to take into consideration. One is power lines. During Hurricane Maria in 2017, most of Puerto Rico’s power lines were destroyed by high winds and strong rainfall. Using my own scientific experience, and Dan Wilk’s personal thought, we both agreed that the best way for this situation would be to put power lines underground instead of outside where they can be easily damaged. This would cost some money to begin with, but overall it will save millions from damage since the power lines won’t be in the open for the wind to knock them down. People won’t lose power as frequently which is a good thing for places like Puerto Rico because even months after the September hurricane people STILL do not have power. Since storms are projected to become more intense, this would be beneficial for Puerto Rico and other places in the Caribbean, so that  even during these intense storms they will have power.
Scientists and engineers are still looking for new ways to plan to minimize destruction for future events. Between finding new materials to reinforce roads, new materials for buildings and finding ways to minimize power loss from putting power lines underground, both Scientists and Engineers hope that by using these methods in the future, they will be able to come up with better ways to prepare for storms, and minimize the amount of destruction and devastation during and after these storms. If more scientists and engineers, as well as inter-disciplinarians worked together to figure out solutions, it would highly benefit people who are affected by these storms in the future and cost much less after these storms occur.
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