Weather and the Single Answer

Weather Map 2013There’s always a temptation to find causality in simplicity.  Sometimes Occam’s Razor cuts true — the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is likely the best of the lot.  There are other times when we have to accept the reality that a confluence of factors are involved — and so it should be with the tragedy in Moore, OK and other natural disasters in recent memory.

The Science Factor: No, we can’t glibly dismiss the notion of climate change, it doesn’t “cause” storms, but it is a factor in their strength.  The Oppenheimer-Lin Study released in February 2013 predicted stronger storms on the east coast of the U.S. — they just didn’t conclude that Sandy would show up so quickly.

“Oppenheimer and Lin, a civil and environmental engineering professor, said Hurricane Sandy’s destruction might have at least one benefit: bringing attention to the East Coast’s vulnerability to massive storms and the likelihood that a warming climate will bring more such storms than ever before.

Hurricanes gain power from the warm ocean surface, so higher temperatures create more intense storms. As sea levels rise, the risk of flooding increases, as well. Though climate change doesn’t cause storms, it’s a recipe for increasingly destructive ones, said Oppenheimer and Lin.

“What’s now a 100-year flood will become a five- to 20-year flood at the end of the century,” Oppenheimer said.” [NJ.com]

Climate change deniers to the contrary, the peer reviewed studies of the effects of global change point in one direction — toward a sign that says “Get Ready.”   See also: “Wilder Weather” [EPA.gov] and Climate Central.

The Population Factor:  One of the ways we measure the seriousness of storm events is by property damage and lives lost, but this calculation must take into account there are more of us if we’re making historical comparisons and contrasts.   The population of the United States in 1940 was 132,164,569; our last census counted 308,745,538 people living in this country.  The population of Reno, Nevada in 1940 was 21,317 by the last count it stood at 225,211.  More people are likely to be affected in some way by natural disasters because there are more people.

The Sprawl Factor: A map of Reno, Nevada made in 1940 shows a very different town than the one we see today.  University Heights was on the northern “line” of development, Keystone Avenue generally marked the western limit — think of Idlewild Park as at the city edge.  To the east the VA Hospital was toward the edge of city development and to the south think of Plumb Lane as the general boundary.  A wildland fire in 1940 would have done damage to wildland — there are now more acres developed placing more property and lives at risk.  Similarly, a 1942 Oklahoma highway map (pdf) shows the space between Oklahoma City, Moore, and Norman.  Moore now being considered a “suburb” of Oklahoma City.  A tornado which in 1942 would have pulverized farm land went through subdivisions in 2013.  As long as our planning and development tends toward moving out as opposed to moving up more land will be developed for more housing, and more targets for Mother Nature’s storms.

There’s food for thought here about global climate change, population, and land development… when we get past the immediate needs of families in New York, New Jersey, Texas and Oklahoma.

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