The volatility of Pacific Northwest weather in recent years demands the scientific community set the record straight about its changes and causes, argues University of Washington meteorology Cliff Mass. Too often, public officials, the media and others are quick to blame global climate change, though its effects require more research. Better the region redouble its...
THE past several weeks remind us of this region’s vulnerability to environmental disasters, as well as deficiencies in our preparations. It is clearly time for a careful assessment of Northwest environment hazards, a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of mitigation approaches, and a vigorous action plan to lessen the impacts of recurring natural events.
As an environmental scientist, I am frustrated by the poor information distributed by public officials, the media and others regarding the current and predicted frequency of extreme weather events. It is time for the scientific community to set the record straight.
With heavy precipitation and steep slopes, major flooding and landslides visit the region nearly every year, with billion-dollar floods occurring roughly once a decade. Powerful windstorms, such as the Columbus Day or Hanukkah-Eve events, can bring winds exceeding 100 miles per hour, with falling trees acting as “force multipliers.” The greatest annual snowfalls on the planet hit our mountains, avalanches often close major highways, and lowland snow can cripple our hilly urban regions. Major earthquakes, although infrequent, have the potential to destroy buildings, bridges and other key structures, volcanic eruptions can spread choking layers of ash and dust, and tsunamis threaten the Pacific Coast.
Recent snow storms and floods revealed many weaknesses in our ability to deal with recurring natural threats. In Seattle, snow crippled the city for nearly two weeks, preventing thousands of people from working, shopping and other normal activities, while hundreds of auto accidents and a near catastrophic bus accident above Interstate 5 put the lives of hundreds at risk.
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During such events communications among key agencies (such as Metro and Seattle’s Department of Transportation) and between local governments and the public are critical, and throughout the snow period the system failed. Major bus routes were unplowed, citizens waited for buses that never came, Metro’s Web servers failed under the load, and Seattle officials claimed effective snow removal for roads that were impassable.
Some city officials attempted to deflect blame by noting the infrequency of major snow events, but they missed an essential point. The question is not how often a dangerous event occurs, but rather whether a reasonable public investment will provide a net savings for society or reduce a serious risk to life and safety.
Catastrophic earthquakes occur once a generation or century, yet we are willing to spend billions of dollars to mitigate their effects. One suspects that a realistic estimate of the loss of income, productivity and sales, as well as the damage to vehicles and public property, due to the recent snows would exceed tens of millions of dollars; certainly, such losses outweighed the costs of additional snowplows and salt. And the risks to the lives of Seattle citizens were unacceptable.
Flooding is a predictable visitor to the Northwest and major floods have occurred annually somewhere in the region for as long as records exist. Yet we still build in the flood plains, provide government insurance for those who take such unnecessary risks, and construct failure-prone levees and other water projects to facilitate such foolish development. Clear-cutting along steep slopes and other poor forest practices unnecessarily increase the chances of landslides and flooding.
Employees of Washington State’s Department of Transportation have been the heroes of the past few weeks, insuring excellent driving conditions on lowland freeways during the snow, dealing with extraordinary avalanches on major cross-Cascade Mountain routes, and rapidly reopening the flooded Interstate 5. Unfortunately, our state has not been willing to make the investments necessary to insure major roads are passable during heavy storms, resulting in Western Washington being cut off from the remainder of the nation for several days.
I-5 must be upgraded to ensure flooding does not close that critical artery, and the weakened Highway 520 bridge, which would surely fail in a major earthquake or a windstorm like the Columbus Day event, must be replaced quickly. Delays in replacing the Seattle viaduct or making I-90 more avalanche-resistant also put our regional economy at unnecessary risk.
How many times have you heard that severe windstorms and heavy rains will increase in the Northwest under global climate change? The truth is, there is no strong evidence for these claims and the whole matter is being actively researched. Some portions of the Northwest have had more rain and wind during the past decades, some less. And initial simulations of future Northwest climate do not suggest heavier rain events.
To plan for the future, a rigorous evaluation of the frequency of major environmental hazards is required. Furthermore, modest investments in observing and forecasting technologies, such as a coastal weather radar, will give the public and decision makers the information required to greatly ameliorate environmental threats.
In short, it is time for the region to begin rational and extensive preparations for natural disasters, investments that will make economic sense and promote public safety. Recent events reveal that local governments and agencies are not ready for major disasters and that our public infrastructure, from communications to structures, must be improved to deal with environmental threats.
Clifford F. Mass is a meteorologist and professor in the University of Washington Department of Atmospheric Sciences.