Living with extreme weather

Weather is what makes Earth inhabitable. Solar rays heat the tropics year-round. As the planet spins at 1,000 miles an hour at the equator, low pressure causes rising moist air to spread out and move north and south. Ocean currents are similar in that they transfer surface heat into the sub-tropical and temperate zones. Dense cold air sinks from the polar regions and is drawn in by pressure differentials to replace the sun churned heated air. Seasons changes through the axial tilt of the planet.

All this simply means that for most people, the places we live are where crops are grown and animals farmed. Cities became possible only when agriculture could replace hunting-gathering as a means of supporting an expanding population. Food and potable water determines the suitability of settlements: technology has made it possible to inhabit nearly every climate zone safely, if not in comfort.

Living in areas that used to be marginal—such as floodplains, ocean-sides etc—is often a choice not a necessity in the developed world. Not so for the poor, who are most often the victims of extreme weather. Lack of zoning and political oversight is often blamed, along with cheap insurance, for allowing people to build structures and live in places that are repeatedly damaged by storms. This is true; however, there is no place safe from extreme weather.

Should everyone evacuate from the coasts? From all islands? Everywhere there is a chance of a blizzard or sub-zero temps? Away from rivers and lakes that flood? What about deserts? We can’t control the weather. We can control how we plan for disasters such as Hurricane Irma.

As the aftermath has shown, Florida is largely habitable because of air conditioning and insect control. Without both, there would be a mass exodus back north into cooler climes. But I grew up in Wisconsin, summers there are even hotter than Florida. Why? Because hot air from the Gulf of Mexico flows all the way into Canada during the summer months. It’s not hot all the time like it is in the semi-tropics, but it gets really, really hot without any chance of rain.

The Midwest suffers from another problem though; tornadoes. Should people be forced to leave Texas, Oklahoma and the rest of ‘Tornado Alley’ because it costs too much to repair property year after year? Well, Europe has their share of extreme tornadoes. In fact, in England, one of the strongest tornadoes ever struck London on October 23rd, 1091. There were only about 18,000 people living in London at that time. Maybe the tens of millions of people who live there now, should all leave in case it happens again.

My point is, weather happens; extreme weather happens, and no matter how much or little you prepare, you can’t control the outcome. Yes, you need to have non-perishable food, gallons of water and maybe a generator, but no plan is perfect. We live in a just-in-time consumer society, and as Texas and Florida have shown, there is not enough fuel, batteries, water, plywood and other storm supplies in stores, when millions of people try to purchase in volumes that normally would last for months. Not to mention that evacuation routes can’t possibly handle everyone trying to leave at once.

When it comes to surviving a storm, luck matters as much as preparation. Where you live only changes what the threat may be. If not hurricanes, then wildfires. If not tornadoes, then flash floods. If not droughts, then avalanches. We have more information than ever before, but sometimes too much knowledge makes the right decision even harder.