August 30, 2017

Texas, and now Louisiana, are reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, but in the wake of this disaster, hope remains that we can prevent future catastrophic storms like this. 

Twelve years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans and it’s been just five years since Hurricane Sandy tore through the Atlantic Coast.

In the past six days, the state of Texas has seen torrential rains from Hurricane Harvey. With over three feet of rain across a huge area, and a record 52 inches in spots, the Washington Post has declared it the “most extreme rainfall event in U.S. history.”

The Lone Star State and now parts of Louisiana, are contending with what the National Weather Service has called “an unprecedented event […] beyond anything experienced.” And the trauma of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy are still fresh in our minds as we witness the devastation caused by Harvey.

Life in Ruins

The toll these catastrophic storms have on communities and families, and ecosystems and wildlife is almost unfathomable. While human impacts are the most visible and tragic, we at Defenders of Wildlife are also concerned about the effects on wildlife and habitat that often go unseen, unnoticed and forgotten.

A natural disaster of this magnitude is a stark and harrowing reminder of the power of nature and the fact that disaster can strike at anytime, anywhere, and affects us all. Right now, tens of thousands of people in Texas are displaced and millions of people are dealing with everything from the loss of their homes and precious memories, to the unthinkable – their loved ones. Our hearts go out to the people and communities impacted by this destructive storm.

In the video below posted just yesterday, amid all the inspiring rescue videos of people coming together to help their neighbors, people are shown rescuing drowning native wildlife from the flood waters. It is a touching gesture not only of human compassion for all life, but a sad reminder that wildlife is suffering too.

Just like human communities, countless wildlife has been displaced by historic flooding, their food sources washed away, their habitats destroyed, and many will lose their lives stranded, drowned or otherwise falling victim to the hammering storm.

Texas is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, including imperiled species. The state is home to thirty threatened and endangered plant species and seventy-six species of threatened and endangered animals including jaguars, jaguarundis, ocelots, and the Houston toad. Many of these plants and animals were incapable of escaping the storm’s path or are holed up in areas that will easily be flooded by the torrential rains.

In addition, those that are able to flee the high-speed winds and inundating rainfall could find their habitats destroyed by the resultant flooding. For instance, the world’s premier wild flock of whooping cranes is, for now, safe at their breeding habitat in Canada, but what will they face when they return to their wintering grounds at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge? And that is only one of multiple national wildlife refuges affected by Harvey, which include Laguna Atascosa, San Bernard, Brazoria, Anahuac, and Sabine refuges, and Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area. The Gulf Coast of Texas is world-renowned as a hotspot for bird species and birdwatching, largely due to these wildlife refuges and dozens of other sites that are protected from development, but not from the ravages of this storm.

Mother Nature can be merciless and surely there is little we can do once a disaster like Harvey is in the works, but there is much we can do to create a better and safer world for humanity and wildlife in the future.

Changing Course on Climate Change

If we continue on our current trajectory, we can expect to see more frequent and more intense storms on the scale of Katrina, Sandy and Harvey. Global climate change has resulted in higher air temperatures which have in turn, led to greater heat absorption by our oceans. As the ocean absorbs more heat from the atmosphere, the upper layers of the ocean waters warm. That warming plays an essential role in determining the strength of tropical storms.

As described in “The Atlantic,” Harvey entered the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical depression, but it quickly gained energy and momentum from the warm surface water temperatures in the area (estimates put the water temperatures near Texas between 2.7 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average – some of the warmest ocean surface temperature in the world). In fewer than two days, Harvey was transformed into a category-four hurricane as it fed off these abnormally warm waters. What’s more, Harvey only gained in intensity as it edged closer to landfall—something only one other Gulf of Mexico Storm (Charley) has done in the 30 years for which we have detailed records.

Typically, as a storm begins to expand, its winds raise up waters from deeper in the water column which are normally colder than surface water temperatures. That churning also pushes warmer waters deep below the surface and dissipates the cooler water into the atmosphere, all of which helps to weaken the storm. Again, in the case of Harvey, its winds kept churning up warm water possibly as far down as 200 meters below the surface—there was no cold water to dampen the storm’s energy.

Even though these scientific links are quite easy to make, it is unlikely that Harvey will be definitively attributed even partially to climate change. The interplay between climate change and the other factors involved in hurricane formation are complex and are still not fully understood. But the take-away is that if climate change is probably contributing to more powerful hurricanes, then we can do something about it.

The current catastrophe should cause us to redouble our efforts to both cope with climate change, and also to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. Adaptation actions that lessen impacts, like restoring wetlands to absorb water and buffer storm effects, and adopting plans to help the most vulnerable people get to safety, are important. But the sheer scope and magnitude of this disaster should remind us of the limits of adaptation alone. Climate change is within our power to mitigate and we have the ability to turn back the clock on what we ourselves have wrought. If we take important, concrete actions now, we can help lessen events like Harvey from wreaking havoc on people, our wildlife and our lands. We won’t ever be able to avoid Mother Nature’s destructive impulses, but we can do more to quell her outrage.


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