Letter: Floods and fires
September 8, 2017
Flooding and forest fires have a lot in common. They are both natural and have played essential roles in the world's ecosystems. Floodplains are fertile topsoil that are primary locations for our food production. Forest fires regulate the woody flora that provides a host of essential ecological services from water storage to creature habitats.
We humans have ignorantly abused both natural phenomena. Putting our civilization in the convenient coastal and river floodplains is leading to more and greater devastation of our excessive and vulnerable societies. Major floods are taking place right now around the world from the Texas coast to Mumbai. Bangladesh is now one-third underwater.
NASA has a map showing the fires in progress all around the planet. They are everywhere. Fires are especially bad in the middle of South America, Africa and Europe. All of this burning is releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The greenhouse gases increase, and the planet warms more. The warming planet means more drought and hotter temperatures in many areas; which increase the tendency to burn. The oceans are absorbing the higher temperatures and they swell; which raises sea level. The polar regions have been warming at a faster rate, and this has changed the jet streams that push our weather around. Hurricane Harvey did not get pushed. Our warmer air can carry more water; that causes bigger hurricanes and heavier rain storms.
In environmental science, "positive feedback loops" refer to conditions that cause increases. The positive feedbacks that take place between the forests, the floods and the warming are accelerating the problem. Many scientists believe we will experience tipping points where the feedback loops are out of control. Some say this has happened.
People say switching from fossil fuels will hurt the economy. The repair bill for Hurricane Harvey is said to be as much as $100 billion. That doesn't touch what people and businesses will lose out of pocket and in income. Our president, and virtually everyone else, is speaking of rebuilding. How long before this happens again? Should we spend enormous sums in taxes, earnings and insurance to reset the conditions? And why should the rest of the country subsidize these areas like New Orleans, New York and the Texas coast? Should we keep repeating the same mistakes? Shouldn't we count this cost to the economy?
Will human societies ever learn and respond to the relationships between fundamental realities such as flood and fire? Doubtful.
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