Saturday, July 30, 2011

Article: Rebuilding Sandcastles (The World Today)

The World Today

Environment: Rebuilding Sandcastles

Cleo Paskal, July 2011
The World Today, Volume 67, Number 6

Risk assessments are supposed to lead to decisions that provide more security. However, after a series of tragic failures such as the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the deadly blowout on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, and the destruction caused to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are serious problems with our ability, or willingness, to accurately evaluate and mitigate risk. The question is, why? And what can be done about it?
An area that encapsulates many of the myriad facets of the challenge is the issue of what to do about United States (US) military installations put at risk by environmental change. The US Department of Defense’s (DoD) 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report explained that: “In 2008, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) judged that more than thirty US military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels. DoD’s operational readiness hinges on continued access to land, air, and sea training and test space. Consequently, the Department must complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its missions and adapt as required.”
Sounds logical, and forward thinking, and the US military certainly has the expertise and funding to do a proper job of it. However, there are multiple systemic barriers standing in the way of accomplishing the essential goal of ‘climate proofing’ those critical installations.
The first issue is technical. Predicting the behaviour of the physical world is an increasingly complex challenge. The science is good, and getting better, but already it is often marginalised in calculations. Add in the new variables caused by environmental change and it gets even more complicated. Does one plan coastal infrastructure for a 15cm or 50m total sea level rise by 2050? It depends not only on how local hydrology affects sea level rise, but also if there is regional subsidence, seismic uplift, siltation, and other factors. Then there is the question of how that rise could affect storm surges and other forms of flooding. With environmental change, past indices are no longer reliable guideposts for future events.