On August 30th, 2005 the focus of the world was on New Orleans in Louisiana, USA after a category 4-5 Hurricane called Katrina unleashed its elemental power. Combined with a levy system that could not cope with the intensity and aftermath of the hurricane, Katrina was the most destructive storm to strike the United States and the costliest in U.S. history, causing over $100 billion in property damage. The human cost of the storm, which is not something that you can put a dollar figure on, is still playing itself out. Lessons on how to plan for and respond to extreme elements can be learnt from the experience of cities like New Orleans and other parts of the planet.
On this day 10 years ago other people around the world were dealing with extreme weather related events such as flooding in Mumbai, India. 2005 was the warmest year in over a century, which may account for the high number of extreme weather events that occurred that year. In the decade since Hurricane Katrina the number of extreme weather events has increased. The elements of wind and water, in the latter case either too much or too little, come to the fore in this context through drought, floods, intense winds and snow and ice-storms. The element of fire, another consequence of extreme weather, also gains our attention through the areas it burns and the lightning that can start fires. Fire is also expressed through the energy of the sun. This drives all weather by heating up the air, land and sea.
The book titled ‘Extreme Weather’, published by the Reader’s Digest in 2006, highlights the weather conditions in 10 places around the world on August 30, 2005. Calling it ‘World Weather Day’, they compare the weather in the following places with New Orleans: The Bahamas – heavy rain; Saskatchewan, Canada – abnormal heat; Iceland – cold storm; Portugal – forest fires; Southern Africa – long-term drought; Mumbai, India – records rains and flooding; Queensland, Australia – rainstorms; the Philippines – monsoon and typhoons; and Taiwan – Typhoon Talim causes major disrupution.
This global perspective of the weather on a particular day is appealing as it provides an overview of the environmental conditions people are experiencing in diverse locations. It demonstrates how we are all connected through the planetary weather system and that people are not alone in having to deal with extreme events. To build on this approach, and to mark the 10th anniversary since Hurricane Katrina, I have revisited the places documented for World Weather Day on August 30th 2005. The aim is to demonstrate how the elements in their extreme form can affect people around the planet and help to explain why they are seen as both friend and foe.
Weather conditions, August 30th 2015: The Bahamas – heavy rain; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – sunny and calm; Saskatchewan, Canada – 18 wildfires burning, part of an extreme and unprecedented summer fire season; Iceland – cold and wet; Portugal – forest fires in the north, grappling with one of its worst droughts in recent memory; Southern Africa – the worst drought in almost a decade; Mumbai, India – warm and humid, above average rainfall this monsoon; Queensland, Australia – severe thunderstorms in parts; the Philippines – warm and wet, damaging Typhoon in early August; Taiwan – warm and heavy rain, Typhoon Soudeler caused extensive damage in early August.
While New Orleans is currently enjoying calm and warm conditions, other parts of the world such as Portugal, Southern Africa and Taiwan are experiencing the same extreme weather related conditions they were 10 years ago. In this case forest fires, drought and typhoons respectively. Large fires have also been burning in Washington State and other parts of the western US. From this brief window into weather conditions on the one day, 10 years apart, one gets the sense that most people on this planet have to cope with extreme weather related conditions at one time or another. Some of the events can be long-lasting such as droughts, for others the actual event can be short-lived such as hurricanes. Even so, the impacts are still often long-lasting – not only on human populations, but on the other organisms we share the planet with. With both the number of extreme weather events and human population increasing, planning for and responding to such events represents a considerable challenge. Learning from communities across the globe that have experienced these events will be an important element in meeting it.