Sandy's havoc makes planning a priority

Sandy's havoc makes planning a priority

Dr Andrew Ash is the director of CSIRO's Climate Adaptation Flagship

Hurricane Sandy has helped turbo-charge an already tight US election contest in its very last week.

Superstorm Sandy should prompt some rethinking in Australia.

Superstorm Sandy should prompt some rethinking in Australia.

Photo: Reuters

The vexed issue of attribution for the superstorm has again become a focus just as it was with Cyclone Yasi, the Victorian Bushfires and Queensland floods as people seek to ask "Why?" and "Is climate change to blame?"

Like all simple questions, the answer can be complex and this is every bit the case with climate science and extreme events.

But no matter whether extreme events such as Hurricane Sandy are naturally occurring events in today's climate, or are part of an increasingly certain erratic weather of the future there is much to be gained by better planning and preparing for the vagaries of our climate.


Since Hurricane Sandy, far more media attention and debate in Australia has focused on the causation argument than on the need to better adapt to these extreme weather events, particularly in our coastal cities and settlements where most of Australia's population resides.

This issue is especially important when you also consider Australia's population growth and that more people are living in potentially vulnerable locations in settlements and cities on flood plains or near the coast.

This urbanisation has led to a much greater investment in infrastructure in these areas.

Consequently, the damage bill resulting from extreme weather events has been increasing rapidly in the last few decades in both economic and social terms.

Risks rise

This trend is set to continue. In south-east Queensland the number of dwellings at risk from a 1-in-100 year storm tide is expected to nearly double by 2030 based on current development patterns.

Most of this increased risk is from a rapidly growing population occupying vulnerable areas though a small amount of the increased exposure is due to the modest amount of sea-level-rise expected by 2030.

However, as you move further and further into this century, sea-level-rise is projected to account for an increasing proportion of the risk from inundation.

The risks are not just at the water's edge. As the urban footprint expands into the peri-urban fringe, more people in Australia are living in areas vulnerable to bushfire in Australia. With an increasing trend in extreme temperatures, this vulnerability is only going to escalate, especially in regions such as south-west Western Australia that is experiencing a long-term drying trend.

Planning counts

This all points to the need for better planning and design for infrastructure and housing so we can adapt where and how we build. As our information base builds, we are able to assemble a much clearer picture - at the scale of individual properties - of the vulnerability to events, such as riverine flooding or inundation from the sea.

Much of this information is available now and can be used to better inform planning decisions on where we build and where limiting developments in vulnerable areas may be a better option - because as the old adage suggests, prevention is better than cure. Unfortunately for established settlements in vulnerable locations – like New York - dealing with the consequences of extreme events enters the realm of "wicked problems".

For those who have been devastated by an extreme event that severely damages or destroys their home, the decision whether to rebuild or relocate is a challenging and emotive issue.

That doesn't mean we should shirk our responsibilities at the policy level in making some tough calls for the long-term benefit and safety of our community.

Innovation scope

There is considerable scope for innovation in adapting house and infrastructure design, the construction materials used, and engineering standards to better withstand extreme weather events.

We have already seen the benefits of the cyclone building code with research undertaken by James Cook University showing only a small percentage of buildings constructed under the current code sustaining any significant roof damage in Cyclone Yasi.

Although there is likely to be resistance from some quarters there is evidence that suggests extending the cyclone building code further down the coast into south-east Queensland makes economic sense in the longer term, even in today's vulnerability to extreme wind events.

Given extreme storm events are projected to become more intense in the future, this would appear to be a "low regrets" decision that characterises sound adaptation planning. This is especially so when the high cost of retrofitting already established buildings and houses is considered, if indeed it can be done at all.

Large-scale engineering solutions for protection are more contested. While levee banks have protected a number of our regional towns, and dams can mitigate flood events, inevitably, there are economic, social and environmental trade-offs with engineering works, and community consensus can be difficult to achieve.

Despite these challenges driving continued innovation in the design and application of engineering options will have real benefits.

There are also alternatives to large-scale engineering solutions to protect settlements and infrastructure, especially in coastal areas.

Using ecosystems to buffer some of the impacts of extreme events, such as storm surges, can be beneficial. Coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves and wetlands, can dissipate much of the energy associated with storm tide events.

In the US these storm protection services have been valued at over $US23 billion ($22 billion) per year in terms of costs avoided to settlements and infrastructure.

There are many "no regrets" and "low regrets" actions we can take that will help us in managing the impacts of today's extreme events and which also take us some way to adapting to a future where the frequency and intensity of extreme events is likely to change.

The key is to not let uncertainty - or politics - be an excuse for inaction on responding to the climate impacts of today and the risks into the future. Rather it should be a catalyst for action, because if we avoid making decisions in the face of uncertainty either our generation or the next will pay.

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