Thursday, September 24, 2020

Changing Narratives

There is a narrative that often appears after "natural" disasters (natural in quotes since some are quite unnatural or have a strong anthropogenic component) that our society needs to change, and that is saying that the disaster was unexpected or came out of nowhere.  

An example of this is provided by the tweet below saying that 2020 has been the year of the "unexpected."

Although we have suffered a series of challenges, none of these were really unexpected.  A short list would include the pandemic, earthquake, fires/smoke, and windstorm.  Perhaps I've forgotten something as the year's been a blur.

The coronavirus pandemic isn't the first nor will it be the last.  Although the timing and details of a pandemic cannot be predicted precisely, the threat posed by them has been known for some time and the subject of significant research.  Some countries have responded well to the coronavirus threat.  The United States has not.  Why this is the case is not the subject of this post, but let's not treat the coronavirus pandemic as a surprise or a one off because it isn't.  We need the be better prepared to take effective action for the next one.  

The Magna earthquake awoke or startled many at 7:09 am MDT on March 18, with noticeable aftershocks for weeks thereafter.  


Similar to pandemics, specific earthquake prediction is not possible except in some circumstances with very short lead time of seconds to minutes.  However, scientists have been aware of the earthquake potential in our region, especially along the Wasatch fault, for decades.  Here too, there are lessons to be learned to be better prepared to take effective action for the next one, even though we don't know precisely where or when it will hit.  

The western wildfires have destroyed communities in the Pacific states and led to poor air quality at times across much of the west.  Utah has not had an easy fire season, but we've been comparatively lucky so far compared to the disasters that have ensued in California, Oregon, and Washington.  Here too, scientists have warned about wildland mangement, invasive species, development patterns, and climate change as agents for exacerbating severe wildfire behavior.  Perhaps an individual wildfire can "come out of nowhere", but the fact that we are now seeing extreme wildfire intensities and spread is not a surprise.

Finally, we have the recent windstorm.  The National Weather Service issued warnings in advance for this event as well and three days prior to the event, I commented on the potential for "strong downslope winds along the Wasatch Front on Tuesday."  An argument might be made that the impacts were more severe than anticipated, but the event was not unexpected.  

We need to change this narrative because it is one that fuels a reactionary response to natural hazards rather than one in which we more proactively build resiliency to these hazards.  Natural disasters are not acts of god and in most instances they are not unexpected, nor do they come out of nowhere. 

Our vulnerability to natural hazards today strongly reflects the choices we have made as a society and as individuals.  Our vulnerability to natural hazards in the coming decades reflects in part those choices, but also the choices we make today and in the future.  

With regards to weather and climate hazards, I often say that we are not prepared for the weather and climate of the 20th century, let alone the climate of the 21st century.   We know that the trends we see happening today: higher temperatures, more severe and prolonged drought, intensifying wildfires, and more extreme precipitation events, will continue and potentially accelerate in the future.  

We need to adapt and prepare for this coming reality, which is going to be different from the one that human civilization has experienced in the last 10,000 years.  

Fool us once, shame on you.  Fool us twice, shame on us.  In some instances, we've been fooled many times.  Let's work to build more resilient communities.  


  1. Well said! And thank you.

  2. So if these were all predictable, what other disasters do you think are predictable that we should be preparing for? Or did 2020 cover all of them?

    1. 2020 has not covered them all and it's important to recognize that some of the disasters we experienced in 2020 could be worse in the future. I am especially concerned about wildfires, which for parts of the west are likely to be even worse in the future.

      The heaviest precipitation events are going to be bigger in the future as well. This has ramifications for urban hydrology and flood design, etc. As an example, see the flash floods in Little Cottonwood and the emigration creek area in past years for local examples.

      Finally, water resource scarcity will be a growing issue.

      A good book on this topic is The West Without Water by Laura Ingraham, which actually covers the full gamut of droughts and floods in the west.

      Water is the agent, through excessive abundance or scarcity, that ultimately delivers many of the most severe weather and climate impacts.


    2. Correction on my comment above. Authors are B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam. I'm not sure how Laura Ingraham snuck in there, but autofill does all sorts of horrible things.

  3. I was surprised to read you recommending a book about climate change written by a conservative Fox News host. Turns out, you added an extra letter in the author's name ;). The West Without Water was actually written by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam

    1. Egad. I'm not sure how that happened. Some horrible autofill I'm sure. Thanks for the correction. I can edit and fix.

    2. Actually, I can't autocorrect. We'll go with it for laughs.

  4. One more time. For the people in the back! (and those with their heads in the sand.)

  5. Please note that the Public Service Commission is currently taking comments on the docket related to Rooftop solar, and filings by Rocky Mountain Power that will kill it in solar.
    If we want change in trajectory, this is a good place to start.
    If we don't change trajectories through speaking up and voting we can continue to expect progressively greater difficulties for not just our lifetimes, but those of the next multiple generations.