Thursday, January 13, 2011

More muscle needed in response to natural disasters

By Carly Weeks, Globe and Mail, January 13, 2011
Officials said Thursday the Brisbane River, which runs through the centre of the city, peaked at 4.45 metres. Though well below expected highs, the flooding has already led to at least 13 deaths, billions in damages and displaced tens of thousands of people in the state of Queensland. Many residents face the prospect of not being able to return to their homes for months, while others have been made homeless by the flooding. Some experts predict it will take years to make a full recovery from this natural disaster.

Animals stranded in Australian flooding But even after the cleanup is complete, experts say this year’s flooding may hold ominous portents, suggesting this type of catastrophic natural disaster may become more common in the future....
For a weather pattern with a name that means “little girl” in Spanish, La Niña packs a nasty punch. It’s sometimes referred to as El Niño’s bratty little sister, bringing with it cooler ocean temperatures in the east and central parts of the Pacific Ocean, which typically causes higher amounts of rain in countries such as Australia and Indonesia.

La Niña occurs when there are strong increases in circulation of trade winds, or surface winds that blow from east to west. Typically, these winds carry warm surface water west to Australia and Indonesia But during La Niña, those surface winds are much stronger, increasing the amount of cooler water near South America’s coast, reducing water temperatures. The mass of cold water travels through the Pacific, causing a build-up of warm water along Australia’s east coast and elsewhere in the region. This, in turn, leads to significantly higher amounts of rainfall, which has caused the extensive flooding in Queensland. La Niña patterns typically only occur once every few years.

El Niño, on the other hand, occurs when there is an abnormal warming of surface ocean waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean. It’s the counterpart to La Niña and the two weather patterns are part of what’s known as Southern Oscillation, which NASA refers to as the “see-saw pattern of reversing surface air pressure between the eastern and western tropical Pacific,” when pressure is high in the east and low in the west tropical Pacific, and vice versa.
La Niña, as well as El Niño, can lead to drought, tropical storms and numerous other weather disturbances that can have a serious impact on people living in those areas.

Many experts say the force of La Niña is the strongest they’ve seen in decades and that climate change may be partly responsible for the severity, citing warmer ocean temperatures.
Oceanologist Gordon McBean said climate projections for Queensland suggest more extreme precipitation is expected to hit the area in the years to come, which could lead to floods every 15 years by 2040. He cautioned that it’s too early to conclude that Australia’s flooding is due to climate change, but that a growing amount of scientific data indicates there will be more events like it in the future.
“The frequency of these heavy rain events is projected to go up,” said Dr. McBean. “It is in the direction of what we expect to unfortunately get worse. As the climate warms, there will be more of these heavy deluges.”
Haiti's earth quake, Europe's snow and ice paralysis, Queensland's devastating floods, Pakistan's overflowing rivers and displaced millions (just today, Brazilians face a river out of control creating mudslides and displacing thousands)...and the list continues to grow of dramatic illustrations of the inscrutable power of "natural eruptions" leaving millions of people homeless, emotionally devastated and politically adrift.
And while the plethora of well-intentioned NGO's like the Red Cross, Medecins sans Frontiers, USC, Red Crescent, and many others generate millions, even billions, in aid, there is a glaring and growing frustration among the victims of these disasters that reveals an inordinate amount of obstruction to the flow of aid.
Just yesterday, the former Governor General of Canada, Michaele Jean, now the U.N envoy to her homeland Haiti, was heard giving voice to the frustration that not enough is being done soon enough.
And while the climate scientists provide hints of explanations, there are real people everywhere being displaced, being uprooted and cast out into the streets and onto the land, wherever they can find shelter, food and medical treatment.
And we continue our honourable if mediocre, piecemeal, and unco-ordinated efforts to rehabilitate these people.
Why are the people of the world either unwilling or unable to generate more substantial and better co-ordinated and better funded relief efforts in these somewhat predictable, repeatable natural disasters?
Isn't it interesting that when the banks are threatened with default, mostly through their own greed and lobbied deregulation, governments seem to find money for their bail-out. And, at least in the eonomic crisis of 2008-9, there appeared to be something of a co-ordinated global response.
And yet, we continue to find and fund band-aids for the human disasters, not generated directly by the people whose lives are most disrupted, although perhaps there is a common global phenomenon of carbon dioxide that exacerbates these disasters. And even to that specific issue, we are not finding political agreement among the major contributors, leaving countries like Canada quite willing and able to take the "low road" while waiting for their "big sisters" like the U.S., China and India to get on board.
What will it finally take to bring natural disasters into the agenda of the political institutions, co-ordinated by an invigorated, substantially funded and unequivocally supported United Nations? Could this be the new frontier for the generation of global political will and the accompanying budgets, leadership and co-ordinated efforts?

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