Thursday, November 1, 2012

What To Do Next?

By Keith McDowell

Superstorm Sandy! Was it a harbinger of the foretold Biblical Apocalypse brought on by the sinful ways of humankind or simply a real-life version of a Cecil B. Demille classic movie epic complete with a parting of the waves? Or could it be a taste of the future as the effects of global climate change begin to exact their inexorable toll? Certainly fire, earth, air, and water played their usual roles as the defining elements of the human experience.

Whatever one might think about the causative reasons for Superstorm Sandy, if indeed there are any, it is undoubtedly a tragedy of historic proportions that cannot be minimized – excepting, of course, those claims by radical jihadists that they are responsible for the storm. But was it predictable? Are superstorms about to become a part of our yearly menu of natural disasters?

If you believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the predictions from their various reports, the answer is yes. Superstorm Sandy is only the beginning. Average temperatures will increase by several degrees and the oceans will rise by several feet before the end of the Twenty-first Century. And you thought it couldn’t get any hotter in Texas or that flooding of the New York City subways couldn’t happen!

We’ve all become inured to the surrealistic debate about climate change and the impact of humankind on the global ecosystem. But is anyone in government paying attention? Are we as a society making any effort to plan for the effects of global climate change? And specifically, have innovators and entrepreneurs bothered to take on the grand challenge of mitigating the consequences of natural disasters?

Mercifully, the answer is yes, but likely not at the level needed to meet the impending crisis. Furthermore, the “solution vectors” lie not just along the “hard engineering” axis, but entail other dimensions including “natural infrastructure” such as swamps and wetlands to mitigate storm surge as well “social infrastructure” – must humans always inhabit the vulnerable shorelines? Setting aside the predilection of humans to maximally expose themselves to a disastrous outcome, it will take a holistic approach to prepare for the coming superstorms.

Take, for example, the predicted rise in the oceans over the coming decades.  Prior to Superstorm Sandy, the State of New York took such warnings to heart and formed the Sea Level Rise Task Force whose final report is available. It’s an interesting report, but like most of the studies that I read and review, little action has been taken. We’ve now seen what that can mean when coupled to storm surge and high tide in the tunnels and subways of New York City. Interestingly, the artistic populace and intelligentsia of New York City also engaged in the flooding debate prior to the storm through a production called “Rising Currents”. People do care about their future!

Innovators have likewise been at work designing new devices and barriers  such as “trapbags” to hold back flood waters. Entrepreneurs have been busy putting new products on the market such as FLOODSTOP by the company Fluvial Innovations. And as always, the Netherlands continues to lead the world as an innovator of flood and surge control systems at the size and scale needed to achieve success. Even our weather prediction systems have undergone significant improvements as described by John L. Guiney, Chief of a Meteorological Services Division at NOAA, in a paper entitled “Innovations and New Technology For Improved Public Weather Systems.”

And not to be forgotten, our nation’s coastal shoreline and the erosion by hurricanes and superstorms have been the subject of much controversy and angst due to the high dollar value of the real estate and our strongly held desire to spend vacation time at the seashore. A Powerpoint presentation from the State of Florida provides an interesting review of innovation and entrepreneurial activity in this important area.

Similar stories can be found in the construction business with respect to the design and the materials used to build homes in vulnerable areas.  And how about the future of the transportation sector in terms of rail lines, tunnels, bridges, buses, trains, subways, and cars. Of course, society still hasn’t figured out how to pay appropriately for the destruction from such natural disasters. What’s going to happen to our economy as we see more and more such superstorms?

On a personal note, I have to relate a story from my days as the Vice President for Research at The University of Alabama in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At issue was what to do with all the debris from that hurricane. In particular, the biomass power industry in Alabama was prepared to remove woody materials both from downed forests and from the shoreline and use the material as feedstock for their power plants. But bureaucracy and red tape got in the way allowing the wood to rot and become a home for all kinds of nefarious critters and bugs. What’s going to happen to all that debris from Superstorm Sandy?

Even more important for our ability to deal with future superstorms, it is essential that government invest in earth science research as the precursor to new innovations and entrepreneurship. Is it really a higher priority for America that the rover Curiosity prowl around the surface of Mars while earth-based weather and monitoring satellites need replacement and upgrades – especially those in polar orbits?

Americans are resilient and have an amazing ability to persevere in the face of unimaginable hardships. The will to rebuild from the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy is admirable and commendable. But isn’t it time for our political leaders to also rise to that same standard? Isn’t it time for Congress as well as our state legislatures to face the undeniable facts and prepare our country for the future? It’s not a question of what to do next! It’s a question of getting together in common cause for the greater good. 

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