Could Natural Disasters Motivate Us to Build Differently?
A map depicting more extreme temperatures in the U.S. Red equals warmer than normal, blue equals cooler. Image courtesy of NASA.
The collection of massive tornados that plowed through the southeastern U.S. recently left more than debris and ruined neighborhoods in its wake. Questions about climate change have predictably resurfaced, in addition to speculation about how to prepare for another event of similar magnitude in the future.
Although extreme natural disasters are nothing new, the increasing frequency and severity of such events is sound cause for concern. "By now, most people get that you can't attribute any single weather event on global warming," said John Nielson-Gammon, the state climatologist for Texas. "But some things are clear: temperatures have been going up, and models all agree that the temperature rise will continue unless we get some massive volcanic eruptions or the sun suddenly becomes much dimmer."
Architects and contractors will be motivated by the storm that killed 300 people in Alabama and nearby states and other natural disasters to design and construct more resilient buildings—particularly after the publicity concerning the flimsiness of contemporary residential construction. Threats posed by extreme weather will also motivate the development of more resilient products and building codes, as seen in the hurricane-proofing strategies employed in newer Florida housing.
Planning and development also deserve deeper assessment. One reason for the increased frequency of disasters is simply due to the fact that there is a greater area of inhabited development than has previously existed. The suburban expansion, which has deployed human settlement like a vast, low-lying carpet across the landscape, has effectively elevated the chances of damage caused by tornadic activity to buildings and infrastructure. As insurance companies will confirm, there are real economic as well as environmental limits to such development strategies. Future development will need to be more consolidated, robust, and resilient to protect against tornadoes and other extreme climatological events.