Na­ture and hur­ri­canes: How we can re­spond

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Peter Ed­wards Dr Peter Ed­wards is a Ja­maican marine sci­en­tist, en­vi­ron­men­tal econ­o­mist and pol­icy an­a­lyst. He cur­rently works as a con­sul­tant for a fed­eral ocean and coastal man­age­ment agency in the USA and is a coun­cil mem­ber of the Ja­maica In­sti­tute of

THE RE­CENT im­pact of Hur­ri­cane Matthew across the re­gion is a re­minder that, oc­ca­sion­ally, Mother Earth likes to let us know that she is in charge. The planet is sub­ject to pe­ri­odic nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena over which we hu­mans have lit­tle con­trol. This year’s very ac­tive hur­ri­cane sea­son is a per­fect ex­am­ple of this.

Matthew nar­rowly missed Ja­maica, brushed Cuba, clob­bered Haiti and up to Satur­day was mak­ing its way up the south­east­ern United States coast­line. There will be much writ­ten about the prepa­ra­tion and sub­se­quent re­sponses to the storm, in­clud­ing in­stances where res­i­dents re­fused to heed warn­ings to evac­u­ate. I sus­pect there will also be commentary on the com­plaints from some Ja­maicans that the Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Ser­vice cre­ated a false alarm and tricked them in to spend­ing on hur­ri­cane prepa­ra­tions. Un­be­liev­able!

One key fact is that the planet is cov­ered by ap­prox­i­mately 75 per cent wa­ter, mostly oceans – with some freshwater lakes and large rivers. This means that weather and cli­mate are driven by the large vol­ume of wa­ter cov­er­ing the earth. Cli­mate and weather are also in­flu­enced by the var­i­ous ge­ogra­phies and ge­olo­gies in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, as well as the di­ver­sity of plants and an­i­mals on the sur­face of the planet.

Th­ese nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena will con­tinue into the fu­ture. The key thing to note is that the im­pacts on peo­ple can be less­ened or mit­i­gated if we hu­mans were bet­ter stew­ards of the en­vi­ron­ment. It is also an ac­cepted sci­en­tific fact that the fre­quency and in­ten­sity of hur­ri­canes will con­tinue to in­crease, and this is pri­mar­ily be­cause of in­creas­ing warmer ocean waters over which th­ese sys­tems gain their power and strength.

Science also tells us that even with nat­u­ral so­lar cy­cles, hu­man be­ings are the largest driv­ers of global cli­mate change. The over­pro­duc­tion of car­bon diox­ide and the changes to the land­scape by the re­moval of veg­e­ta­tion and ex­pan­sion of cities means that the en­ergy of the sun can­not be con­verted by plants into other forms, in­clud­ing food and fuel. This con­trib­utes, in large part, to global warm­ing.

Con­tin­ued warm­ing of the oceans means big­ger, ‘bad­der’ and faster hur­ri­canes and ty­phoons. Warmer oceans also mean that in each sea­son, we will have more hur­ri­canes form­ing off the coast of Africa, hav­ing longer shelf lives and wreak­ing more havoc in the re­gion.

How can we ad­dress it? First, we need use our land­scapes more ef­fec­tively, in­clud­ing im­ple­ment­ing bet­ter town plan­ning and smart growth ap­proaches. So­lu­tions in­clude re­duc­ing sprawl – us­ing more high-rises in ur­ban ar­eas and ap­pro­pri­ate coastal tourism de­vel­op­ment. We need to stop pay­ing lip ser­vice to the con­cept of low-car­bon foot­prints and sus­tain­able liv­ing. Re­duc­ing, reusing and recycling must no longer be buzz­words.


We need to con­serve and re­store our de­graded nat­u­ral ecosys­tems so that they can pro­vide the ser­vices that ben­e­fit peo­ple. This in­cludes storm pro­tec­tion ben­e­fits, where coral reefs, man­groves and sea­grass beds pro­tect life and prop­erty by re­duc­ing the en­ergy of de­struc­tive waves and storm surges gen­er­ated by hur­ri­canes.

We need to lobby our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to sign the rel­e­vant in­ter­na­tional agree­ments to re­duce global car­bon diox­ide emis­sions and pro­tect bio­di­ver­sity. Fi­nally, we all have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to take the time to teach our­selves, our chil­dren, par­ents and friends about so­lu­tions that can help re­duce the im­pacts from nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and build re­silience.

Hur­ri­canes will al­ways oc­cur and we can do noth­ing to stop them. We can, in­stead, adopt bet­ter ways of liv­ing on our land­scapes and sus­tain­ably us­ing the ecosys­tems we de­pend on. This will re­sult in mit­i­gat­ing the ter­ri­ble im­pacts to hu­mans. Th­ese so­lu­tions are not im­pos­si­ble and we hu­mans can build re­silience in the face of na­ture’s wrath.

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