SADANAND: Fighting future Frankenstorms

In the aftermath of Frankenstorm Sandy, climate change — an issue that was completely ignored in all three presidential debates — has justifiably become a national concern. In fact, like the election, you may be sick of reading about it (sorry). While the jury is still out on whether climate change contributed to Sandy’s strength, it is refreshing to see that many Americans have moved away from arguing whether climate change is occurring and are instead wondering what we can do about it.

Broadly, there are two avenues we need to pursue. First, we need to reduce our damage rate by initiating more stringent regulations on greenhouse gases. This act would serve two purposes — as a country, we could reduce our contribution to climate change and we would also be setting an important example to the rest of the world, particularly China and India, two huge greenhouse gas producers who have been similarly irresponsible. Regulation is a vague and sometimes scary term, particularly when wielded by fossil fuel-funded politicians, but it doesn’t have to be painful for business. In August, the Obama administration implemented new regulations that would improve the fuel economy of cars by almost double by 2025 — a move that was endorsed by most major car manufacturers. Not only will these new car standards save consumers money and hopefully reduce our dependency on foreign oil, their approval by car industry officials shows that big business can be painted more green. Similar regulations can and should be put into place for other sectors.

Unfortunately, we can’t do much about the greenhouse gases that have already been released in the atmosphere, and we must also develop and implement better ways of protecting ourselves in extreme weather. If climate scientists are right, we Northeasterners may be facing more frequent hurricane hits. As a born and bred Connecticut girl, this freaks me out. As Sandy showed, one of the most frightening consequences of being in the line of a hurricane is the storm surge. Sandy’s power was such that, when combined with a full moon high tide, the storm surge topped 13 feet in some locations. Some coastal communities had a defense mechanism in place. Stamford is protected by a movable sea barrier and was completely insulated from the storm surge. Movable sea barriers are like gates — they can swing open or flip up from the ocean floor. While they have downsides — for example, they could be disruptive to aquatic ecosystems — they have been implemented in a number of places and seem like a pragmatic solution to protect cities such as New York from billions of dollars in damage, even if they cost a lot to construct. Due to development, many coastal areas have lost wetland areas that can help protect against storm surges by acting as giant sponges. It is time to consider how to best restore wetland areas, which could complement movable sea barriers in protecting against flooding.

Aside from massive flooding, thousands of people lost power for extended periods of time — some people still don’t have power — thanks to wind and water damage from Sandy. Losing electricity is awful, particularly when air conditioning or heating are required. Overhead wires and power substations that lie close to the water will always be liabilities, so we need to consider more stable means of powering our buildings. Geothermal wells, a fairly common heating/cooling option in countries like Iceland and China, may be one option. Geothermal wells are essentially underground pipes circulating fluid deep enough to pick up heat (or get rid of heat as needed) that can then be extracted at the surface. They have less of a carbon footprint because there is no combustion of fossil fuels and while initially expensive to install, the energy savings can, in the long-term, offset the cost.

We’ve wasted enough time arguing over the reality of climate change — and time is precious. We need to take concrete action not only to curb our greenhouse emissions but also to protect ourselves against future Frankenstorms.

 
SAHELI SADANAND is an immunobiology student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences . Contact her at saheli.sadanand@yale.edu .

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