Several weeks ago I visited an experiment in a forest in southern England trying to age young trees prematurely. While I was there, I saw the repercussions of the events of a year earlier, when the United Kingdom was hit by three consecutive Atlantic storms in the space of a few days. One of the victims of that triple whammy was a large beech tree in the forest, cut down by the uprooting of its neighbour.
The arrival of three violent storms in less than a week is called a compound disaster – extreme events that occur either together or quickly one after another, before recovering from the previous storm (or storms). It was also a cascading disaster, with one extreme event causing others to occur. Storm Eunice, which made landfall in the UK on 18 February 2022 – the day after Storm Dudley – knocked out power to more than a million homes, closed schools and businesses, and disrupted the UK’s transport system for several days. When Storm Franklin arrived three days later, it hampered cleanup from Eunice and led to major flooding.
All over the world, complex and cascading disasters are becoming increasingly common as the climate warms. Over the past two years, eastern Australia has been battling a series of devastating floods that came hot on the heels of record drought, heat conditions and bushfires in 2019 and 2020. In New Zealand, the devastation wrought by Cyclone Gabriel last month was compounded by more torrential rain a few days later. In 2021, parts of Louisiana in the United States were hit by two hurricanes, Ida and Nicholas, in the space of just over two weeks. And the list goes on.
Compound and successive disasters are not new, of course. In 1954, before climate change really began, the northeastern coast of the United States was hit by two hurricanes, Carol and Edna, in the space of 12 days, killing 80 people and causing flooding and an estimated half a billion dollars in damage. . However, they are getting more frequent.
There is a school of thought that says that complex, cascading disasters lead to a mental health crisis
Susan Cutter of the University of South Carolina, in her keynote address at a recent meeting of the US National Academies of Sciences (NAS) on the subject, said such disasters “are the new normal.” The ensuing report described the “new normal” in stark terms, stating that “most disasters do not occur as isolated events, and instead appear to pile on one another, disaster after disaster, often unleashing new devastation on society before it has chance to recover.”
Not all of them are climate related. All recent examples have occurred against the backdrop of yet another disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic. Some involve natural hazards to weak infrastructure, such as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which flooded the Fukushima nuclear plant, triggering a meltdown there.
We can expect more. A recent newspaper reported that back-to-back tornadoes — which strike within 15 days at the same place — are becoming more common on the East Coast and Gulf Coast of the United States. What used to happen once in a century will happen once every two years or so by the end of this century.
Another future risk is a type of event called a “deadly heat complex risk for tropical cyclones,” in which a hurricane or tornado causes power outages and is quickly followed by a heat wave. Air conditioning units are not working and millions are exposed to deadly heat of more than 40°C (104°F). Such events were previously “extremely rare”, according to Tom Matthews of King’s College London. Only four were recorded between 1979 and 2017, all in sparsely populated northwest Australia. But climate models suggest it will become more common, with one temperature rise every three years under 2°C, putting millions of people at risk.
To me, this smacks of a tipping point, an irreversible shift in the Earth’s natural systems due to climate breakdown. If so, it may be said that it is the first we crossed, though many others are near. It’s a very big impact, too. Disasters, by definition, affect people; Compound and successive elements have more influence than any of their elements alone. There is even an emerging school of thought that says that complex, cascading disasters lead to a mental health crisis as people go through these events with little or no recovery time.
What can we do, if anything? Not so much keeping warming at current levels – which it won’t happen -. NAS says there are two options: make disaster response systems work harder and faster or completely redesign them to handle such events, though it doesn’t say how this might be achieved. But we don’t have much time to lose. According to NAS, the new standard is an “untenable situation.” Storm clouds gathered.
what i’m reading
I’m still plowing through lit grief. It is the newest on the heap state of infidelity by Juliette Rosenfeld.
what i’m watching
The new season of ITV’s cold drama Not forgotten.
What I’m working on
Some sadness lit up from my country.