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Natural disasters of unnatural proportion

Scientists unsure of causes of this year’s devastation

Piper Sloan, Staff Reporter

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Flames flicker to the north, winds howl to the south, rain beats down on the ground in the east, tectonic plates shift underneath us. Dirt, mud and snow fall down in suffocating waves. Everywhere the sky is blanketed in a thick grey mixture of clouds, smoke and dust. The past few months have been rough for Mother Nature.

As of Oct. 17 there have been 155 total named tropical storms and ten ten hurricanes, six six of which were Category 3 or higher. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season is rapidly becoming one of the worst in history. Not to mention the fires in British Columbia that have been filling the air in Seattle with smoke and ash for the past two months.

Natural disasters aren’t anything new to the world. People know what these disasters are because they’ve happened before. What’s special about this year’s bunch is that they seem to be more frequent and more devastating: the real question is why?

The truth is that scientists are hesitant to say that it’s all due to only one reason. There’s a whole melting pot of issues in this recipe for devastation.

For starters, the pine beetle is to blame for the copious amount of smoke everyone inhaled this summer. Noam Gundle is a biology and oceanography teacher. He says that the rise in pine beetle population means fires can start more easily. “We’ve had warmer winters, which means the pine beetles aren’t dying off as much, which means there are more pine beetles, which means there are more trees being killed by the pine beetles, which means there’s lots of standing, dead, dry timber waiting to burn,” Gundle said.

When talking about the hurricanes, rising ocean temperatures is one of the key culprits. Even the smallest fraction of a degree can make hurricanes significantly more intense, with the potential to be much more tragic.

Meghan Sheldrake is a junior who is passionate about climate change, and she brings up the point that the consequences of climate change are catching up to us. “The people that have been affected by these natural disasters are casualties of climate change and it’s very sad that we aren’t doing enough to protect them,” Sheldrake said.

On the other hand, there are reasons unrelated to climate change that play a part in making this more devastating than in the past. Scientists have no doubt that there is a correlation between climate change and the intensity of these disasters, they’re just skeptical about the causation.

Kristi Straus is an Environmental Studies Lecturer at the University of Washington. “There have always been disasters,” Straus said in an email. “Although climate change models indicate greater numbers of severe storms, and thus, greater hurricane damage and flooding, we cannot attribute any single storm or disaster to climate change.”

Many people are attributing the misery to population density and bad preparation. Logically, the more people in an area, the more people are affected by the hurricane, thus, the more tragic the disasters are, but they’re not necessarily more intense.

Todd Mitchell, Climatologist and Research Scientist at University of Washington, believes there are other factors to the perception of these hurricanes “What happened this summer is that the hurricanes hit population centers, and that is why such a big deal is being made of them,” Mitchell wrote in an email.

In addition, there’s the issue of preparation. In some of the places that experienced these disasters it’s clear that the buildings and cities just weren’t prepared for disasters with such high levels of destruction.

“Building codes and city planning are not what they should be for cities in the paths of hurricanes. People shouldn’t be living in floodplains,” Mitchell said.

Now, on the third hand, there is a theory that this year’s disasters only seem miserable because there are so many people talking about it. It may be partly because every time a disaster hits we know about it within 15 minutes, and we’re constantly getting more and more updates each second. This major increase in knowledge may just make the whole thing seem a lot more overwhelming than in the past.

“There are about six or seven hurricanes every year in the Atlantic. There is no evidence, yet, that there is an increase in the number of, or severity of, tropical storms,” Mitchell said. “Six or seven occurrences of anything is very few so it is difficult to say anything about changes in this number.”

No one can seem to agree which hand is truly responsible for making this summer of natural disasters such a rough one. It’s a big swirling mix of climate change, population density, ill-preparation and constant inflow of information.

So even though there isn’t necessarily one big reason behind this year’s ample devastation, one thing is for certain: as the flames die down, the winds turn into a breeze, the rain lightens up and the dark gray sky gets a little clearer, there’s going to be a lot of cleaning up to do.

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The student news site of Ballard High School
Natural disasters of unnatural proportion