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An Exploration of the Environmental & Economic Consequences of Extreme Weather

Updated: May 27, 2023

"BT-67 fixed-wing aircraft releasing oil dispersant over an oil discharge from the sunken mobile offshore drilling unit, Deepwater Horizon." Credit: Britannica ImageQuest.

In the span of a mere three months, the Bay Area has been transformed from a place of drought to an environment of excess water. California, once known for a year-round mild summer, has been hit with atmospheric rivers, flooding, 88 mph winds, and even snow. The culprit: climate change. However, this is no surprise as globally, the world is seeing an increase in extreme and unexpected weather patterns. This means more tropical storms, hurricanes, and droughts in climates that are not equipped to handle these changing patterns. Statistics from NASA found that based on current climate models, extreme storms may increase 60% by the year 2100. Without intervention, unexpected and extreme weather is going to have enormous effects which we have begun to see around California. As both ecosystems and man-made systems are fragile, there will be consequences in almost every industry if we fail to implement solutions and adapt. Here are some of the consequences we are beginning to see:

1. Increase in Oil Spills

Oil spills can occur in a couple of ways, however, are predominantly a result of accidents involving ships, rigs, and pipelines. Consequences are extreme, as they wreak havoc on marine ecosystems, contaminate water and coastlines, and have enormous economic repercussions. Extreme weather—hurricanes and tropical storms specifically—increase the frequency and environmental destruction of oil disasters.

High winds, waves, and flying debris can damage infrastructure and lead to hundreds of small spills in the aftermath of a hurricane. In 2005, spills caused by Hurricane Katrina collectively expelled 10 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil rig structures— tall platforms at sea which function to collect and store oil—are designed to withstand storms to a certain extent. However, the increased frequency of storms is causing damage more frequently—not to mention the platforms are often decades old. One example is Hurricane Ida, which in 2021 sunk or otherwise damaged numerous offshore oil platforms, leading to more oil spills.

Oil spills that occur prior to hurricanes can have equally harmful effects. Wind and waves spread the oil out over expansive distances and make cleanup nearly impossible. The first few days after spills are the most critical time for cleanup because of how fast oil dilutes and spreads.

"Soldiers clean up the oil spill on Papamoa Beach on October 12, 2011, in Tauranga, New Zealand." Credit: Britannica ImageQuest.

2. Damage to Marine Ecosystems

Even though the majority of storms' noticeable damage is above ground, the increase in storms affects sea life in a lot of ways. During large storms, small, slow-moving fish are killed by the strong currents and changes to ocean salinity. Hurricanes bring swaths of rainwater, which dilute the top layer of ocean water and alter the oxygen content posing a significant threat to marine life.

In addition, storms' strong currents drastically transform marine landscapes, ripping out miles of sea vegetation and destroying the ecosystems that sea life depends on. This process is natural to an extent, but as these large storms occur more frequently, these ecosystems do not have time to recover. It can take algae years to decades to fully recover after a hurricane, according to MIT’s Climate Portal. In an experiment where researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of California, Santa Barbara annually cut back kelp forests to simulate a storm, shellfish, and crustacean numbers fell 30-61%. This data indicates that as ocean storms increase, the tasty lobsters, clams, and crabs that consumers often buy will harshly decline.

3. Economic Footprint

Not surprisingly, all categories of extreme weather are expensive. Whether it’s droughts damaging the agriculture industry or property restoration after hurricanes, be prepared for a huge increase in government spending. From 1980 to 2021, the U.S. has paid $2.155 trillion dollars for damages relating to natural disasters. In that timeframe, 2022 has had the third-highest number of billion-dollar disasters. With violent weather, transportation comes to a halt, schools are shut, air travel is canceled, and economic productivity slows. For companies, this means declines in revenue for each storm. Storms also suppress consumer activity for non-essentials. Data collection from Hurricane Matthew illustrated a significant reduction in consumer spending, especially in service and entertainment industries, according to Federal Reserve. While in this instance consumer spending quickly bounced back, businesses will continue to suffer with each major weather event.

"Collapsed pylon that was bent over by hurricane-force winds during Hurricane Jimena." Credit: Britannica ImageQuest.

4. Infrastructure

Parallel to the economic effect, damage to land and public works may start to occur faster than the government can repair it. While the governments will allocate resources to larger projects (restoring power, removing debris from roads, etc.), lesser issues will be put off or ignored.

One big example of this is the U.S’.s pothole problem. This past February, San Francisco Public Works recorded 1,585 pothole repairs, nearly triple the average compared to past years. This was caused by the Bay Area’s increase in rainfall, as potholes are formed by a combination of cold temperatures and precipitation. When asphalt cools, it becomes rigid and susceptible to cracks, which spread as water seeps in and loosens the ground underneath. While in the Bay Area rainfall is the cause of the issue, in colder Midwestern states, increasing average temperatures will also exacerbate the fragility of the roads. A 2017 report from the U.S. Transportation Department indicates that “increases in average air temperatures during the winter are more likely to influence subgrade freeze/thaw cycles . . . Areas that experience more days above freezing…[will] have to extend or shift the period of time during which weight restrictions [on pavement] are imposed.”

While twenty years ago the mere existence of climate change was up to debate, the Bay Area is now seeing real effects. The climate crisis is no longer something to debate the existence of. It is drastically changing every aspect of Bay Area society and without serious action, the current world will continue to deteriorate. However, this crisis is still reversible. Ever since the beginning of widespread industrialization, society has been working towards a more sustainable future. In the 1800s, U.S. cities were blanketed in smog, and rivers were so polluted that a match thrown into a river would almost light from the oil residue and debris. Now there are available electric cars, solar panels, and government regulations that limit gas emissions. However, these improvements are not enough. Corporations and governments must prioritize the climate crisis if humanity and the ecosystems that sustain all life will survive, acting now is key.


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