We know that people are the largest source of gas emissions, with a majority of greenhouse gases coming from us burning fossil fuels for heat and transportation. These emissions led to global warming, which in turn increased the temperatures of our ocean water. Earlier this year, we saw the consequences of having warmer oceans when Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, Texas. Due to Harvey’s presence, a significant number of homes and buildings were damaged, flooded, and lost.
Needless to say, we’ve only reached the cusp of this dangerous series of events, and catastrophes are sure to worsen until proper measures to reduce carbon emissions are put into place, and most importantly: enforced. But waiting for the world to come to its senses isn’t the only option people have to reduce our carbon footprint. Some, like Dutch architect Koen Olthuis, have taken to designing homes located on the water — homes that not only produce zero-emissions, but are also hurricane-proof.
The livable yachts come installed with 30-kW solar panels and 1,000 kWh of lithium-ion batteries. Rainwater is collected on the roof and transported to the home’s hull, where it’s then purified for future use. There’s also plenty of space to comfortably move around, including the 24×12 foot sliding terrace that lets you step outside and enjoy the view.
Arkup says its yachts are “a new way of living on the water, making you feel 100% safe and protected,” and we’re inclined to agree. Each home is equipped with shock-resistant glass panels to prevent shattering, and a hydraulic self-elevating system that can raise the home in the event of heavy rainfall or a hurricane; each hydraulic leg can also extend up to 40 feet. If that wasn’t enough, the hydraulic legs can move the unit at a speed of 7 knots (8 mph).
Ahead of each storm, people were notified and encouraged to evacuate or seek suitable shelter. While everyone’s safety is the primary concern during such events, there are those who see hurricanes as a valuable learning opportunity. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson wants scientists to confront hurricanes head on and use the insights they gather to develop a way to turn their cyclonic energy into electricity.
In an interview with The Today Show, Tyson expressed a degree of frustration with how we react to hurricanes, saying, “I’m tired of looking at photos of countless thousands of cars exiting a city, because a hurricane is coming.”
He continued, “Where are the engineers and scientists saying, you know, instead of running away from the city that’s about to be destroyed by this hurricane, let me figure out a way to tap the cyclonic energy of this hurricane to drive the power needs of the city that it’s otherwise going to destroy?”
It’s an ambitious idea, and one that would certainly help in our efforts to shift to clean energy. We already use solar panels and wind turbines to gather energy from sunlight and wind, and are looking into floors that harvest kinetic energy. Harnessing hurricanes, however, would be another matter entirely. Not only because they tend to move around (and aren’t as frequent as, say, the wind blowing) but also because they’re uncontrollable and extremely powerful.
According to Business Insider, tropical storms and hurricanes are capable of outputting around 600 terawatts of power — far more than the 1,064 gigawatts of electricity we were capable of generating as of 2015. That isn’t to say engineers and researchers aren’t developing equipment to capture a hurricane’s energy — there’s the Challenergy wind turbine capable of doing that — but it’ll take some time to truly offset the damage caused by such storms.
In a continued streak of goodwill during this year’s devastating hurricane season, Tesla has been shipping hundreds of its Powerwall batteries to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Since the hurricane hit on 20 September, much of the U.S. territory has been left without power — about 97 percent, as of 27 September — hampering residents’ access to drinkable water, perishable food, and air conditioning. The island’s hospitals are struggling to keep generators running as diesel fuel dwindles.
Installed by employees in Puerto Rico, Tesla’s batteries could be paired with solar panels in order to store electricity for the territory, whose energy grid may need up to six months to be fully repaired. Several power banks have already arrived to the island, and more are en route.
As the New York Times reported, restoring power to Puerto Rico will be both difficult and expensive: “Transformers, poles, and power lines snake from coastal areas across hard-to-access mountains. In some cases, the poles have to be maneuvered in place with helicopters.” Tesla’s Powerwall systems could provide lifesaving energy while those repairs are in process.
There’s been a devastating trail of destruction and flooding along the east Atlantic coast in the last few weeks following Hurricane Harvey and now Hurricane Irma. The latter, recently moving across Florida, was the strongest sustained hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic outside the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricane strength is measured on the Saffir–Simpson Scale, ranging from one (the lowest) to five (the highest) based on the hurricane’s wind speed and estimated potential damage. This takes into account parameters such as whether the hurricane uproots trees or removes roofs from houses, and whether the destruction could last for days or months.
Initially, Hurricane Irma was rated as a category five, losing energy along its path, with winds moving at 175mph (roughly 282kph) — destroying homes and causing power failure in the Caribbean. But given that Irma’s power has made some islands “barely habitable,” is category five really sufficient? Is it time to introduce a category six?
People have been quick to ask if Hurricane Irma is connected to climate change and whether this is a sign of things to come. It remains uncertain whether hurricanes have significantly increased in frequency or severity as global temperatures have risen, partly due to a lack of long-term data.
We know that hurricane formation is affected by changes in sea surface temperatures — a warm ocean helps fuel hurricanes. This is partly driven by natural periodic and cyclic variations in the Earth’s climatic and oceanic systems, meaning that in some years the ocean is warmer than in others.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that what we’ve seen recently, compared with decades ago, is not so much a change in hurricanes, but a change in impacts. Many coasts have become increasingly urbanized, and this trend is likely to continue. As with many small islands, much of the population of Barbuda, Guadeloupe, and others in the Caribbean are situated on the narrow coastal fringe — meaning they experience the full force of natural disasters, sometimes on scales never seen before. This means there is more infrastructure to be destroyed or damaged during extreme weather conditions than, say, to 100 years ago. The same could be said as Irma moved over Florida.
Infrastructure on islands, such as harbors and airports, are key lifelines to the outside world — and any disruption to these can have serious consequences, potentially for many years. On small islands, infrastructure is partly there to support the economy (including tourism), which in turn provides further economic development, social welfare, and health benefits to the wider population. Take the infrastructure away as Irma has, and the economy declines leading to a shock.
This is because, historically, small islands have been essential maritime or colonial hubs or trading posts. But today they are highly reliant on external trade, often through fisheries, agriculture, or tourism. Concentrating on one or two industries makes islands strong, but when extreme events or global disasters occur, the shock means they count the cost. Essentially, they have their eggs all in one basket. In Antigua and Barbuda, the total contribution of tourism to gross domestic product was 60% in 2016.
Hurricane Andrew, also a category five event, made landfall in August 1992 — affecting the Bahamas and Florida. In the Bahamas, damage worth US$250m was reported, with projections of a decrease of 20% in tourist revenue, despite the vast majority of the islands surviving the hurricane. Luckily, advertising campaigns and repairs ultimately prevented the loss in tourist revenue. This is an important lesson about how to respond to such events.
Other extreme events have caused long-lived adverse effects. For instance, in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami affected tourism and wider development for several years.
Clearly there is a need for planning in emergency response. This needs to be targeted and accompanied by long-term resilience strategies. Shocks can also provide opportunities. Thanks to the Maldivian Safer Islands programme, islands have been constructed to a higher elevation to reduce the long-term risk of flooding.
The 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims for nations to mitigate the effects of climate change, singles out small, developing island nations, many of which are in the Caribbean, as “particularly vulnerable” due to their “significant capacity constraints.” Irma has reminded the world that extra help is needed when an island state is partially destroyed.
Long-Term Outlook on Hurricane Scale?
So will islands continue to suffer as a result of hurricanes — and will it get worse? In addition to warming temperatures and potential increase in future severity, the slow, but long-term effects of sea level rise could also increase the extent of flood impacts during and after extreme events.
From 1901 to 2010, sea levels rose by about 1.9 millimeters a year. This is projected to accelerate, so that sea levels are about a meter higher in 2100 than today. Over a century, sea-level rise could make the difference between minor and major flooding, and the longevity of impacts.
Indeed, long-lasting impacts may provide impetus for introducing a category six of the Saffir-Simpson Scale. This could describe cases that have a permanent effect on living conditions — potentially making some areas permanently uninhabitable. Such effects are currently not accounted for on the scale.
Whether we do introduce a new category remains to be seen, but it is certainly something worth discussing. Adaptation to climate change and extreme events can help to increase resilience and reduce damage in extreme conditions. But due to their shear strength, events such as Hurricane Irma cannot be adapted to. Sadly, humans will never be totally resilient to extreme events and long-lasting impacts remains a major challenge for all.
It is the height of a highly destructive hurricane season in the United States. The devastation of Harvey in Texas and Louisiana caused nearly 300,000 customers to lose electricity service, and Hurricane Irma has cut service to millions of people. Soon, winter storms will bring wind and snow to much of the country.
Anxious people everywhere worry about the impact these storms might have on their safety, comfort and convenience. Will they disrupt my commute to work? My children’s ride to school? My electricity service?
When it comes to electricity, people turn their attention to the power lines overhead and wonder if their electricity service might be more secure if those lines were buried underground. But having studied this question for utilities and regulators, I can say the answer is not that straightforward. Burying power lines, also called undergrounding, is expensive, requires the involvement of many stakeholders and might not solve the problem at all.
Where Should Ratepayer Money Go?
Electric utilities do not provide service for free, as everyone who opens their utility bill every month can attest. All of the costs of providing service are ultimately paid by the utility’s customers, so it is critical that every dollar spent on that service provides good value for those customers. Utility regulators in every state have the responsibility to ensure that utilities provide safe and reliable service at just and reasonable rates.
But what are customers willing to pay for ensuring reliability and mitigating risk? That’s complicated. Consider consumer choices in automobile insurance. Some consumers choose maximum insurance coverage through a zero deductible. Others blanch at the higher premiums zero deductibles bring and choose a higher deductible at lower premium cost.
To provide insurance for electricity service, regulators and utilities must aggregate the preferences of individual customers into a single standard for the grid. It’s a difficult task that requires a collaborative effort.
The state of Florida’s reaction in the wake of the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons provides a model for this type of cooperative effort. Utilities, regulators and government officials meet every year to address the efficacy of Florida’s storm hardening efforts and discuss how these efforts should evolve, including the selective undergrounding of power lines. This collaborative effort has resulted in the refinement of utility “vegetation management practices” – selective pruning of trees and bushes to avoid contact with power lines and transformers – in the state as well as a simulation model to assess the economic costs and benefits of undergrounding power lines.
Burying power lines costs roughly US$1 million per mile, but the geography or population density of the service area can halve this cost or triple it. In the wake of a statewide ice storm in December 2002, the North Carolina Utilities Commission and the electric utilities explored the feasibility of burying the state’s distribution lines underground and concluded that the project would take 25 years to complete and increase electricity rates by 125 percent. The project was never begun, as the price increase was not seen as reasonable for consumers.
A 2010 engineering study for the Public Service Commission on undergrounding a portion of the electricity system in the District of Columbia found that costs increased rapidly as utilities try to underground more of their service territory. The study concluded that a strategic $1.1 billion (in 2006 dollars) investment would improve the reliability for 65 percent of the customers in the utility’s service territory, but an additional $4.7 billion would be required to improve service for the remaining 35 percent of customers in outlying areas. So, over 80 percent of the costs for the project would be required to benefit a little more than one third of the customers. The Mayor’s Power Line Undergrounding Task Force ultimately recommended a $1 billion hardening project that would increase customer bills by 3.23 percent on average after seven years.
In addition to the capital cost, undergrounding may make routine maintenance of the system more difficult, and thus more expensive, because of reduced accessibility to power lines. This may also make it more difficult to repair the system when outages do occur, prolonging the duration of each outage. Utility regulators and distribution utilities must weigh this cost against the costs of repairing and maintaining the electricity system in its overhead state.
Electricity service is valuable. A 2009 study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated an economic cost of $10.60 for an eight-hour interruption in electricity service to the average residential customer. For an average small commercial or industrial customer the cost grew to $5,195, and to almost $70,000 for an average medium to large commercial or industrial customer. The economic benefits of storm hardening, therefore, are significant.
Beyond the economic value of undergrounding, one could consider other benefits, such as aesthetic ones, which may be more difficult to quantify. But all costs and benefits must be considered to ensure value for the customer’s investment.
In terms of reliability, it is not correct to say that burying power lines protects them from storm damage. It simply shifts the risk of damage from one type of storm effect to another.
For example, it is true that undergrounding can mitigate damage from wind events such as flying debris, falling trees and limbs, and collected ice and snow. But alternatives, such as proper vegetation management practices, replacing wood poles with steel, concrete or composite ones, or reinforcing utility poles with guy wires, may be nearly as effective in mitigating storm damage and may cost less.
Also, undergrounding power lines may make them more susceptible to damage from corrosive storm surge and flooding from rainfall or melting ice and snow. Areas with greater vulnerability to storm surge and flooding will confront systems that are less reliable (and at greater cost) as a result of undergrounding.
So, the relocation of some power lines underground may provide a cost-effective strategy to mitigate the risk of damage to elements of a utility’s infrastructure. But these cases should be evaluated individually by the local distribution utility and its regulator. Otherwise consumers will end up spending more for their electricity service, and getting less.
In the wake of both Harvey and Irma, hurricanes have understandably returned to the forefront of public consciousness. We don’t see storms of their magnitude often — decades can pass between such events — and yet these hurricanes occurred nearly back to back, bringing irreparable damage and flooding to Houston, Texas, and parts of Florida.
By giving experts enough time to warn people of the coming danger, our current ability to predict and track weather went a long way toward limiting the loss of lives. Helping those experts get across the magnitude of this danger was the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
The beginnings of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale can be traced back to 1969 when Robert Simpson, then director of the National Hurricane Center, decided to warn the people of Mississippi about the specific dangers posed by the coming Hurricane Camille, bucking the tradition of issuing only general warnings. Around the same time, engineer Herbert Saffir was trying to determine how to quantify hurricane damage for the United Nations (UN).
Following Hurricane Camille, Simpson came across a scale Saffir had designed that organized the hurricane’s potential structural damage based on its wind strength. The pair decided to collaborate on a simplified scale that would be easy for the general public to understand. They landed on one with just five levels, moving from 1 (the weakest, relatively) up to 5 (the strongest). Experts now had a way to give the average person an idea of the kind of storm heading their way through just a single number.
In the years since the creation of this Saffir-Simpson Scale, adjustments have been made to improve its accuracy. Now named the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, it takes into consideration a storm’s sustainable wind speed only (and not wind gusts) and accounts for confusion that could arise during the conversion between miles and kilometers per hour.
While the Saffir-Simpson Scale has proven remarkably beneficial over the decades, it does have limitations. To that end, other scales are still in development, including the Cyclone Damage Potential Index.
Developed by scientist James Done, this index focuses on how much damage a storm is likely to cause and not just its intensity. The reasoning is that a hurricane that hits an area uninhabited by people and unoccupied by buildings won’t cause much destruction, so it would receive a lower number on the 1 to 10 scale than a less powerful hurricane headed toward a highly populated area.
It also takes into account details ignored by the Saffir-Simpson Scale. “The index measures wind speed, but also how long those strong winds blow for. So it incorporates the size of the storm and how fast it’s moving forward,” Done told NPR. “It has a stronger relationship to basically how long the storm is going to stick around for.”
The index has already shown its effectiveness by giving a fairly accurate prediction of Hurricane Harvey’s affect on Houston, but it shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale — more like a supplement. Simpson’s decision to warn Mississippians about Hurricane Camille back in 1969 saved lives, and having more than one simple, accurate way to relay the potential danger of coming storms can only improve our ability to plan for these extreme weather events.
Perhaps even more important than warning the average citizen, these scales can also be referenced by first responders and relief organizations. Those groups can use the additional information to adjust their own aid and rescue plans and improve their ability to predict the specific items and materials they’ll need.