Thursday, June 20, 2019

Who's Responsible?

A riveting new miniseries from HBO dramatizes the real-life, historical events surrounding the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the 1980s.  The human--technological and political--actions that led to the death and destruction attributed to the event are evident in each episode.  In this case, however, nature was the victim, not the cause.

A recent earthquake off the western shore of Japan, blamed for a brief tsunami warning and the injury of dozens of people, was a stark reminder of how a natural event can cause a disaster; and how decisions made by humans can exacerbate the impact of that natural event well beyond reasonable expectations. 

Photo Source: Daily Telegraph

A major earthquake off the eastern shore of Japan in 2011 resulted in a tsunami that killed thousands and displaced millions. I've addressed Japan's vulnerability to tsunami in prior posts.  In this case, however, the placement of nuclear power plants in the tsunami zone and the actions that were taken in response to the inundation all contributed to a significant radiation release that added to the death toll and, like Chernobyl three decades earlier, meant the evacuation of 100,000 people and the abandonment of entire cities.  A tourist named Bob visiting the area remarked:

"Imagine you have to leave everything behind suddenly and never have the chance to go back. The fact that people left this kind of value behind and never came back to pick anything up in six to seven years, shows us the impact of the disaster."

Even the cash registers are still filled with money.

"It gives you the impression of walking around in a ghost town. The area will never be the same. The government declares the green areas are safe, but most of the inhabitants will never return back home."

The lasting radioactive damage to the area surrounding the nuclear power plant meant the area was uninhabitable for a long time.

Bob's remarks about visiting the dead zone at Fukushima concluded with a sobering observation about human nature:

In contrast to [nuclear exclusion zones] Chernobyl and Pripyat, they want to make the area inhabited again.  His visit to the site has left him worried that we haven't learned from the accidents at nuclear power plants, like in Fukushima.

"It left a big impression on me, even more because the same could happen in the area where I live. I live close to two dangerously old nuclear power stations and they keep on running despite all of their technical troubles.

"People just don't learn from their mistakes. I am sure this stubbornness will cause mankind to become extinct in the future."

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Heat is On

Once again, many parts of the world are already suffering from record heat. And it's only June. Japan is experiencing record temperatures (a seeming reprise of last year's deadly heat wave) and India's population is suffering as well.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a number of adaptation strategies for states and municipalities to address public health concerns over potential high heat events, including:

·       Raising Awareness
·       Providing Incentives and Awards to spur heat reduction actions
·       Establishing Urban Forestry, Tree, and Landscape Programs
·       Retrofitting Public Buildings       
·       Setting Policy, Planning, Design, and Building Standards and Codes
·       Including Extreme Heat Concerns in Air Quality Improvement Plans

The EPA concludes that "local and state governments can add urban heat island mitigation strategies in policies or regulations, ranging from purchasing guidelines to building codes. A number of these actions have helped remove barriers or provide incentives for implementing mitigation strategies. Others have prescribed minimum requirements, especially for new construction…  Communities are considering urban forestry and cool roofs, in particular, as technologies that can help."

The National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHI) provides a wealth of information regarding preparing for and dealing with the public health threat of intense heat.  They provide an interesting graphic outlining the "interactions among climate drivers, environmental and institutional context, social and behavioral context, exposure pathways, and health outcomes," here:

The NIHHI provides the following explanation:

Experts in climate and health have developed the conceptual diagram at right to illustrate the exposure pathways by which climate change can affect human health. The diagram accounts for factors that positively or negatively influence health outcomes (gray side boxes): key factors that influence vulnerability for individuals (right box), and key factors that influence vulnerability at larger scales, such as natural and built environments and their management (left box). All these factors can affect an individual’s or a community’s vulnerability to extreme heat through changes in exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. The entire system may also be affected by climate change.

Another EPA guide outlines specific tools that planners can use to project the most vulnerable populations in urban areas.

People living in cities are at a higher risk from the impacts of heat waves because urban areas are already warmer than surrounding non-urban areas due to the heat island effect. But local governments can take steps to help residents, infrastructure, and systems reduce their vulnerability to heat, both in response to an extreme heat event and as part of longer-term planning to lessen future risks.

For example, to safeguard against the acute effects of extreme heat on people’s health in the short term, local officials can establish early warning systems and urban cooling centers  and raise awareness about risk factors, symptoms of heat-related illness, and when and how to seek treatment.  In addition, they can protect or modify roads, train tracks, and other infrastructure by using more resilient materials, as well as implement energy efficiency measures to reduce disruptions of city services and stress on electricity systems during heat waves.
To improve resilience to future extreme heat events, cities can incorporate heat island reduction strategies—such as green or cool roofs, cool pavements, or increased vegetation and trees—into long-term planning efforts to help lower urban temperatures. Such cooling measures help to reduce impacts on public health and urban systems from extreme heat events.

The above referenced page is a worthwhile resource for further research.