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Peter Edwards | Nature and hurricanes: How we can respond

Published:Monday | October 10, 2016 | 10:00 AM
Peter Edwards

The recent impact of Hurricane Matthew across the region is a reminder that, occasionally, Mother Earth likes to let us know that she is in charge. The planet is subject to periodic natural phenomena over which we humans have little control. This year's very active hurricane season is a perfect example of this.

Matthew narrowly missed Jamaica, brushed Cuba, clobbered Haiti and up to Saturday was making its way up the southeastern United States coastline. There will be much written about the preparation and subsequent responses to the storm, including instances where residents refused to heed warnings to evacuate. I suspect there will also be commentary on the complaints from some Jamaicans that the Meteorological Service created a false alarm and tricked them in to spending on hurricane preparations. Unbelievable!

One key fact is that the planet is covered by approximately 75 per cent water, mostly oceans - with some freshwater lakes and large rivers. This means that weather and climate are driven by the large volume of water covering the earth. Climate and weather are also influenced by the various geographies and geologies in different countries, as well as the diversity of plants and animals on the surface of the planet.

These natural phenomena will continue into the future. The key thing to note is that the impacts on people can be lessened or mitigated if we humans were better stewards of the environment. It is also an accepted scientific fact that the frequency and intensity of hurricanes will continue to increase, and this is primarily because of increasing warmer ocean waters over which these systems gain their power and strength.

Science also tells us that even with natural solar cycles, human beings are the largest drivers of global climate change. The overproduction of carbon dioxide and the changes to the landscape by the removal of vegetation and expansion of cities means that the energy of the sun cannot be converted by plants into other forms, including food and fuel. This contributes, in large part, to global warming.

Continued warming of the oceans means bigger, 'badder' and faster hurricanes and typhoons. Warmer oceans also mean that in each season, we will have more hurricanes forming off the coast of Africa, having longer shelf lives and wreaking more havoc in the region.

How can we address it? First, we need use our landscapes more effectively, including implementing better town planning and smart growth approaches. Solutions include reducing sprawl - using more high-rises in urban areas and appropriate coastal tourism development. We need to stop paying lip service to the concept of low-carbon footprints and sustainable living. Reducing, reusing and recycling must no longer be buzzwords.

 

CONSERVE AND RESTORE

 

We need to conserve and restore our degraded natural ecosystems so that they can provide the services that benefit people. This includes storm protection benefits, where coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds protect life and property by reducing the energy of destructive waves and storm surges generated by hurricanes.

We need to lobby our political leaders to sign the relevant international agreements to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions and protect biodiversity. Finally, we all have a responsibility to take the time to teach ourselves, our children, parents and friends about solutions that can help reduce the impacts from natural disasters and build resilience.

Hurricanes will always occur and we can do nothing to stop them. We can, instead, adopt better ways of living on our landscapes and sustainably using the ecosystems we depend on. This will result in mitigating the terrible impacts to humans. These solutions are not impossible and we humans can build resilience in the face of nature's wrath.

• Dr Peter Edwards is a Jamaican marine scientist, environmental economist and policy analyst. He currently works as a consultant for a federal ocean and coastal management agency in the USA and is a council member of the Jamaica Institute of Environmental Professionals. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @peterericthor.