Friday, May 31, 2013

Is it time for engineering to shift from sustainability to storm resliency?

Is it time for engineering and policy makers to reexamine our priorities in the context of the built environment?  Are we placing too much emphasis on the LEED certification of the local school building versus the functional requirement to absorb shocks from increasing extreme storm events while recovering and rebuilding as quickly as possible?  How does the Triple Bottom Line interface with the dead elementary school children recently killed in Oklahoma?  With no practical way, either economically or politically, to reduce carbon emissions below key threshold values, is it time to focus engineering and innovative resources more toward the idea of the resilient city and the science, engineering, and management associated with recovering from a disaster?  Is the carbon footprint of concrete all that important in certain high risk areas if the concrete is under 10-feet of floodwater or has a 2x4 completely blown through it?

The disaster narrative is becoming clearer as the planet warms and more and more moisture embeds in the atmosphere.  As we saw recently in the massive tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, the narrative of urban resilience and recovery is becoming a political and economic necessity.  Disasters reveal the resilience of governments (and thus engineering and construction) - the very legitimacy of government is at stake in the era of climate change and extreme weather events.  Moore will be a good example of urban rebuilding symbolizing human resilience.  Engineering needs to provide more leadership by casting the opportunism of our declining infrastructure as an opportunity to set off a chain reaction of urban renewal and reinvention in the era of extreme weather and climate change.

Finally, Geoffrey Parker has a great article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Inevitable Climate Catastrophe.  He has several good points we need to be thinking about.  From the article:

"Although Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, it was only one among 484 reported natural disasters of 2005 around the world, causing a total of $176-billion in damage. That figure held the record until 2011, when, although the total of reported natural disasters fell to 352, the damage they caused exceeded $350-billion. This total included $2-billion from a tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, Ala.; $2.5-billion from a tornado that hit Joplin, Mo.; and $210-billion from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, in Japan. Among them, those three extreme weather events killed more than 16,000 people.

No human intervention could have prevented those natural catastrophes—although a better early-warning system, education about evasive strategies, and faster and more effective emergency responses could have mitigated the consequences. Likewise, no human intervention can prevent volcanic eruptions or a decline in the number of sunspots, despite the certainty that they will affect the climate, reduce harvest yields, and thus cause starvation, economic dislocation, political instability, and death. Instead we convince ourselves that these disasters will not happen just yet (or, at least, not to us).

As the paleontologist Richard Fortey has observed: "There is a kind of optimism built into our species that seems to prefer to live in the comfortable present rather than confront the possibility of destruction," with the result that "human beings are never prepared for natural disasters."
Until recently, the fact that almost all people killed and most people affected by natural disasters lived outside North America and Europe fostered the comforting belief in the West that such things happened only "somewhere else"—an assumption encouraged by terms such as "Typhoon Alley" and "The Ring of Fire." That view is not unfounded—the Philippine archipelago really does experience more natural disasters than any other comparable area of the world, with 220 volcanoes (at least 12 of them active), as many as five earthquakes a day, and up to 30 typhoons a year—but natural disasters now also strike North America and Europe as well. Thus, according to a European Commission report, overall losses caused by weather and climate-related events have increased from a decadal average of about $9-billion (1980-9) to more than $17-billion (1998-2007)."

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