With the supposed doomsday causes by Hurricane Irene now past, here are some thoughts on what happened from a green perspective:
Down here in Atlantic County it seems that most of the damage in the aftermath of the hurricane consisted of rivers, lakes, and streams flooding over, as well as power outages. With regards to the flooding, this might be the first real wakeup call to the northeast on how climate change can impact us. I don’t believe that most of the coastal cities will be underwater by the end of the century. In fact, if I had to bet, I’d say that won’t happen. But with warming oceans and melting polar ice we are sure to see at least a minimal rise in sea level. With even the smallest amount of sea level rise you end up more prone for flooding during storms. So while on a daily basis slightly higher sea levels might not affect our lives, during storms you can bet the flood damage is going to be worse than usual as our emissions change the climate. If you used to be safe, a block or two away from areas that got flood damage during storms, chances are those waters will begin to creep closer to you with each passing storm.
While sea level rise is part of the concern with hurricanes, another is ocean temperature increase. If you watched any of the coverage on Hurricane Irene, you probably picked up on the fact that hurricanes can lose intensity as they reach colder waters. A warmer ocean means hurricanes might not lose steam when they reach New Jersey like they have in the past. I’m not one to say climate change is going to create more hurricanes, or more powerful hurricanes as some do, but it makes a lot of sense that more hurricanes will retain their strength all the way up to the northeast.
When it comes to wind damage, we don’t see the same problems up here in the Northeast when a hurricane hits compared to the damage done in North Carolina and Florida. You frequently see windows blown out, roof damage, uprooted trees, and even entire homes destroyed when hurricanes strike south of us. In New Jersey the damage typically comes in the form of broken tree limbs. However these often result in power outages as the tree or occasionally the wind itself takes out power lines. In the wake of Hurricane Irene many are still without power in area, a full four days after the storm passed, even with crews working around the clock to resolve the outages. Aside from burying utility lines underground there isn’t much you can do to prevent these outages. But a lot can be done make the recovery time much quicker.
For years we’ve heard the “smartgird” buzzword, and how it would make power cheaper, reduce how much we actually need to produce, allow renewable energy sources to work better, and make everything more efficient. This all true. However, most people don’t really think or care about the electric grid until there is a problem, namely power outages. Southern California Edison describes smartgird as “an increasingly intelligent and highly automated electric power system that utilizes technology advancements in telecommunications, information, computing, sensing, controls, materials, in addition to other grid technologies.”
So what does that mean to someone waiting for the power to come back on after a storm? Well like everything else in the world, things go smoother the more information you have. With a smartgird utility companies would know exactly which households had lost power. With more accurate data on where the outages are occurring power can be redirected easier to prevent additional outages due to strain from stressed lines, and also give better information on what damages are the most crippling to the system. While many might fear smartgird due to some big brother paranoia that the electric company knows exactly what you are doing, they’ll be a lot happier when the lights come back on quicker after a storm.
One last point I’d like to make on the hurricane is regarding the coverafe it received. I applaud state and local officials, both in New Jersey and throughout the east coast for taking the step necessary to protect us. They were able to do this because weather forecasters made clear the threat that the hurricane COULD cause. Unfortunately, the forecasters and the media had all but concluded well before the storm hit that we were all but certain to see the “Northeast’s Katrina”. Media outlets were still predicting doom and gloom even after the hurricane had moved through North Carolina and significantly weakened. I worry what happens when during every hurricane the media predicts doom. More often than not, especially up here, we end up being spared. So when the big one does eventually hit, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, or 25 years from now, will we be so used to false predictions of doom that we won’t take hurricanes seriously anymore? After all the false alarms, will people ignore calls for evacuation the one time the big one hits? I certainly hope not.