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5 Smart Ways to Prepare for Extreme Weather

Emily Heaslip

Worldwide, roughly one in 40 people live in a place likely to be exposed to flooding by the end of the century, absent significant changes. In the US, nearly 40% of the population lives in high population-density coastal areas. Eight of the 10 largest cities are near the coast. 

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and extreme weather events to intensify, putting communities at greater risk. The average global sea level has risen about 8–9 inches since 1880. Hurricanes are getting stronger, with the likelihood that a hurricane will be Category 3 or higher increasing by about 8% per decade. Category 3 storms carry sustained winds of at least 110mph, causing billions of dollars of damage. ENSO events are appearing to intensify too, impacting weather both onshore and in the ocean. 

[Learn more: How Ocean Climate Change Impacts El Niño and La Niña

Extreme weather is going to get more extreme over the next few decades. And, while steps should be taken to mitigate the impact of climate changes, we should also be prepared: operating under a “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” mentality is vital to adjusting to this new reality. Here are 5 smart ways we can begin to prepare for more extreme weather. 

Improve data collection 

Predicting extreme weather events is contingent on high-quality data - better data improves the models we use to build flood maps, provide early weather warnings, and predict local sea level rise.

Today, organizations all over the world are investing in technology that can improve data collection. “NOAA collects 20TB of data every day, twice the volume of data contained in the entire printed collection of the US Library of Congress,” reported Intel. “Polar-orbiting satellites travel four million miles in a year, collecting vast quantities of visual data from space. More data is gathered from ground monitoring stations, specialized sea buoys, weather balloons, and even bees tagged with GPS devices.” 

[Read more: Improving Hurricane Observations with Data from Scalable Sensor Networks

At sea level, technology like Sofar Ocean's Smart Mooring allows for a comprehensive approach to protecting coastlines. Smart Mooring can be used to forecast tidal predictions, run dredging assessments, and measure tides and water levels. Able to be anchored off the coast, the system can detect incoming storm surges with precision and accuracy, enabling better city planning, flood monitoring, and storm warning systems. 

However, there is still a way to go in making this data, in scale, pace, and practice, accessible and actionable to countries worldwide. The development of affordable data collection tools and open data sharing better prepares coastal communities for increasingly unpredictable weather events in the face of climate change.

Update flood maps + flood monitoring

Flood maps and flood management and monitoring are two ways in which we can be better prepared for extreme weather. 

Flood maps are issued by FEMA to guide decisions about land use and development, as well as to set building codes. If a flood map is inaccurate, a new building may not have the right support structure to withstand flooding and collapse. Inaccurate flood maps could cause insurance companies to inaccurately evaluate risk, leaving homeowners vulnerable. And, unfortunately, 58% of all FEMA flood maps are considered to be virtually obsolete. Without accurate maps, flood warning systems may not have the right data needed to warn communities to evacuate in time. 

Flood maps are only part of the story. Flood management systems are also a worthwhile investment; these systems consist of measures that can stop floods before they get too out of control. The UK Environment Agency includes these examples as part of its flood management approach

  • Flood management through natural interventions: how can we use vegetation and land management to slow down the flow of water before it reaches large rivers? Steps like erecting barriers in fields, planting more trees to catch rainfall, and cutting notches into embankments to divert water can help.
  • Install sustainable drainage: improve drainage systems on roads as well as drainage systems from buildings that flow into open ground or large basins, instead of drainage systems that can easily get overwhelmed. 
  • Dredge rivers: remove buildups of silt, sand, and rock to improve a river’s ability to carry water downstream.

These measures may not prevent floods, but they can mitigate flooding and help coastal communities be better prepared.

Upgrade critical infrastructure

In severe cases, extreme weather events destroy infrastructure and incur billions of dollars in damage. Rescue efforts and recovery is more difficult when bridges collapse, power grids go down, and water systems aren’t able to drain properly. 

One of the ways that we can begin to prepare for more extreme events is by making infrastructure more resilient. When infrastructure fails, it’s usually due to one of three reasons

  1. The disaster is above the infrastructure’s level of tolerance: for instance, Interstate 10 in Phoenix flooded after the intensity of the rainfall exceeded the pumping stations’ capacity to keep up with the downpour. 
  2. There is no backup system in place: “When something goes wrong there are fewer options for managing the stressor, such as rerouting flows, whether it’s water, electricity or even traffic,” explained Smithsonian Magazine.
  3. Demand is above capacity: extreme weather, such as a heatwave or drought, pushes demand for a resource (e.g., power or water) to extremes, causing infrastructure to fail. 

The infrastructure of the future must overcome these limitations with agile design, failsafe backups, and the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions. For instance, in Kuala Lumpur, traffic tunnels are designed to be able to transition to stormwater management during intense rainfall to reduce the risk of flooding. “Microgrids” can be brought online ahead of hurricanes to provide a secondary source of power. Ultimately, our infrastructure needs better maintenance and upgrades to withstand extreme weather. 

Restore ecosystems and water storage

Cities and communities can also invest in so-called “natural infrastructure” – nature-based projects, such as mangroves or man-made lakes, that can protect shorelines, store excess water runoff, and protect homes and businesses. 

These approaches have already shown early progress in flood management. In Bangladesh, efforts to restore coastal mangroves and hillside forests aim to stave off landslides and floods from future extreme weather. A MercyCorps project in Indonesia is reforesting land near rivers to prevent property damage and reduce the risk of flooding. 

“If the upstream area has a good filtration system, then I believe whenever it rains upstream, the downstream communities won’t be affected by flooding,” said one MercyCorps program beneficiary

Focus on agriculture

Finally, the farming sector is ripe with opportunities to reduce the impact of climate change and add resiliency to our food supply. Data shows that the U.S. agriculture industry contributes to nearly 10% of total national emissions. Addressing resilience in this sector not only helps mitigate climate change, but also helps our economy, provides, reduces the risk of drought, and increases productivity. 

“By increasing the complexity and diversity of agricultural ecosystems, regenerative agriculture makes the soil more fertile while retaining more water. It also reduces erosion, enhances nutrient cycling, and boosts resilience to pests and drought,” wrote the Center for Climate Change and Energy Solutions.

Soil carbon sequestration is currently the most affordable option for removing carbon from the atmosphere, according to the IPCC. One study found that around 93% of the total soil carbon sequestration potential of U.S. agriculture land could be captured for less than $87 per metric ton. Switching to methods of regenerative agriculture can help U.S. farmers increase their profits by more than 70%.

For more on preparing for climate change and extreme weather, visit the Sofar Ocean blog

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