The debate rages on over climate change and what needs to be done to address it, if anything. Regardless of your position on that matter, there’s no escaping the certitude of the weather. The weather! With all the baked lawns, charred forest, buckling pavement, derechos, unusual tornado patterns, etc., maybe we should consider that we aren’t even prepared for the weather!!
We aren’t prepared to withstand substantial drought. We aren’t prepared for scorching wildfires. We aren’t prepared for flash flooding in our cities. We aren’t prepared for EF-5 tornadoes. We aren’t prepared for straight-line winds that tear our tethers to the grid.
What can we do to be prepared? Well, for one, carry an umbrella. But what else is there? Some weather events are so sudden and violent that preparation is almost impossible. Other events (like the drought) last so long that we are unprepared for their lingering consequences. But there are things we could do…things that not only protect us, but also provide ecological, economic, and social benefits.
The drought in the United States this year has been brutal. July was the warmest month on record for the contiguous United States. Drought has encroached on over 63% of the lower 48 states. Severe drought is classified as a natural disaster by the U.S. EPA.
The drought has been particularly devastating to agriculture that relies on rain and irrigation from reliable water sources. Well, rain is gold these days and water sources are severely depleted. Constant use and inefficient watering techniques have already depleted major groundwater resources, like the Ogallala aquifer that underlies much of the plains. As opposed to some seasons when farmers are PAID TO PLOW CROPS UNDER (to maintain lucrative crop prices), prices this year are being forced higher for low supplies (like Corn).
There are several ways to deal with the drought. Drought requires efficient watering of gardens and landscaping, if it’s not already banned (see watering tips by Joe Lamp’l, host of PBS “Growing a Greener World”). Some farmers are watering parts of their land while sacrificing others.
But more importantly, how could we be better prepared for drought in the future? Well, we shouldn’t be wasting our resources on extracting, filtering, and purifying drinking water just to flush it down the toilet and wash the car. Water conservation is a primary concern today, but it should be habit on a daily basis. It should be as simple as using greywater or collected rainwater for flushing toilets, watering the lawn, and washing cars. The plants we add to our landscapes should be native, drought tolerant, and/or deep-rooted. Irrigation to gardens and ag fields should be extremely efficient. Drip irrigation and low-level, properly-timed sprayers can effectively provide moisture to the plants while minimizing loss by evaporation, salt-accumulation, and soil erosion.
Drought reduces moisture levels in the soil and leaves dry tinder for rampant wildfires. Part of the reason for the terrible fires is from intense fire suppression by foresters. Several years ago, we thought fire was bad in all circumstances. We are now finding that fire is a natural part most ecosystems. When fires are allowed to occur naturally and regularly, the understory kindling doesn’t usually build up so much as to scorch everything. That is why controlled-burns and thinning of vegetation have become accepted practice in forests and prairies all over the world. Burning reduces wildfire fuel, destroys intolerant invasive plants, and brings back native and natural growth.
On the other end of the scale, flooding and especially flash flooding are dangerous occurrences that inundate homes and threaten lives.
What can you do for this? Well, first, DO NOT build on a flood plain! Just because you haven’t seen floodwaters reach far beyond its channel in your lifetime doesn’t mean it has happened before or will happen again. The flat area along water bodies are naturally inundated during 1-in-10, 1-in-100, and 1-in-1000 year rain events.
Next, flooding tends to be exacerbated in urban areas where concrete, asphalt, and compacted soils prevent rainwater from infiltrating into the ground. Instead, the water becomes surface runoff. Most urban areas have sewer systems to carry away stormwater, but sometimes those systems reach capacity. In cases where stormwater systems have been combined with sewer systems, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) can spew a mixture of stormwater and untreated sewage into waterways.
Look at all that liquid gold going down the drain!
To fight flooding in urban areas, stormwater should be minimized or at least slowed down. That can be done with pervious pavements, larger areas of urban parks and forests, retention ponds, and detention ponds. We can store it in cisterns or rain barrels for later use. We can also incorporate green infrastructure including grass swales; constructed, restored, or expanded wetlands; rain gardens, green roofs, green walls (an introduction), and pervious pavement. These options generally add vegetation that can help store and evapotranspire the water and increasing the area of permanent and temporary water storage. On top of minimizing stormwater runoff, many of these green technologies provide temperature benefits, air quality improvement, shade, soothing green space, opportunities for using native plants, and habitat for local wildlife.
You’d think everyone in the center of the country would have proper tornado protection plans. Best places to be during harsh storms include a reinforced shelter, in a basement, or in a small interior room. But because of geology, hydrology, and cost, many homes just don’t have protection. Approximately 82 percent of the homes didn’t have basements in Joplin, Missouri, where the EF-5 Tornado struck last year (my college hometown). In Oklahoma, it is very difficult and costly to construct a basement (See why).
So what can we do? Well, we can build stronger homes and remove or secure obstacles outside that could become projectiles. Also, we can incorporate safe rooms made from recycled plastic materials. Recent research shows they work very well. During the rebuilding of Joplin, many are choosing to install safe rooms. EFJoplin (Originally Project JOMO) offers some of these safe rooms constructed from recycled materials. This can divert great volumes of plastic from landfills, which are becoming fuller and fewer across the U.S.
On a related note, tornadoes, hurricanes and even violent straight-line winds can damage homes and leave many without power. Most homes and businesses simply cannot function without electricity. Some people cannot live without electric-powered medical devices, air conditioning, and heat. What can we do about this?
Well, aside from building homes stronger and utilizing passive lighting and temperature moderation (skylights, large windows, etc. for natural light and air circulation), we could provide our own power and be semi-independent from the utilities. Photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, combined with still-improving backup systems, can provide emergency power without fossil-fuel generators.
To be completely independent of the grid, these technologies must be employed with other innovations in sustainable building design. Earthships (see a previous entry), for example, are completely off-the-grid homes with numerous innovations to make comfortable but efficient living possible.
I could go on and on. To me, the principles of sustainability appear to align with improving the human need for food, water, and shelter. If all of these are improved, we may be able to better weather what we receive from Mother Nature.