News and perspectives from the DHS Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence at UNC-Chapel Hill

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Wildfire Risks to Communities – Problems and Solutions

By Suzanne Hollis

photo of Suzanne HollisDuring Dr. Michele Steinberg’s summary of wildfire history, she notes that in 2018 six wildfires accounted for $12.35 billion in losses. The history of wildfires and how they occur has led to what we have learned and where we should place our efforts. The occurrence and severity of wildfires is increasing, however, the lessons we have learned can help reverse this: wildfires are inevitable and necessary in many ecosystems. During large wildland/urban fires hundreds of structures an hour may be ignited, and no fire suppression system in the world can stop losses from large conflagrations. Dr. Steinberg’s comments on mitigation and preventive actions reminded me of our previous lecture Engineering with Nature for Enduring Resilience given by Dr. Todd Bridges. Our actions have disrupted the environment’s natural fire prevention.

By preventing natural wildfires from occurring, fuel in the form of dead foliage builds up dangerously so when a wildfire occurs it reaches the canopies and becomes uncontrollable. Rather than trying to reduce wildfires with human made solutions, disconnected from the ecosystem, we need to learn from the environment and lean into natural solutions. Dr. Steinberg notes American beliefs and attitudes towards wildfire, which Firewise USA is attempting to readjust through education: that wildfire is the enemy, it is the firefighter’s job to rescue me, nobody can tell me what to do with my property, but the government should aid me after a disaster, I am helpless in the face of wildfire, and there is nothing I can do to reduce my risk.

Dr. Steinberg placed great emphasis on the idea that wildfire prevention is a local effort, and that individuals are responsible for wildfire prevention mitigation. I think this is an interesting point, because currently our society is seeing a shift in the perception that climate change mitigation must be fronted by governments and larger companies rather than the individual. The attitude towards climate change and sustainability used to be that every individual must take on responsibility and take action, however, since what we know about solutions and mitigation has increased, the public perception of responsibility has shifted. This is the opposite from wildfire prevention. Wildfires used to be an uncontrollable force of nature, in which individuals had no power over. However, I have spent most of my summers in Idaho, with the understanding that preventing wildfire is an individual responsibility. My time in Idaho has also shown me that the efforts to educate communities about wildfires is in my opinion one of the best initiatives. When I consider government-run educational initiatives, wildfire prevention comes to mind quickly.

Dr. Steinberg discussed the fact that wildfires are occurring in new places and in greater force. This means that fires are occurring in areas that are not prepared for wildfires. There is certainly a lack of education about wildfire mitigation in these areas, so how will this harm prevention efforts? As climate change dries out and warms climates, wildfire risk and occurrence will continue to increase.

The parts of our country that are historically vulnerable to wildfires have preventative measures and education established. This is not the case for the rest of the country. Imagine living in a landlocked state, and having to react to a hurricane. There is no president, no education, and no habit to guide you. Living in Atlanta, I have never had to prepare for or react to an earthquake. How would I react to one, when I have not been prepared? As a country, we need to anticipate new vulnerable areas to wildfire, preemptively install resources and begin educating community members before it is too late.

The Role of NOAA in Natural Hazards Resilience

By Melissa Ashbaugh

photo of Melissa Ashbaugh

As a master’s student nearing the halfway mark of my program, I often wonder about what it means to have a career in natural hazards resiliency. I know that land use practices and anthropogenic climate change have increased hazard risk and that I’m interested in creating changes to protect people and resources. But how do you get from an interest to a career? And what motivates someone to persist in a field where the bad news seems to only get worse?

So, when Adam Stein, Senior Policy Advisor on Climate and Resilience at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), talked about a “career-defining moment”, my interest was piqued.  Adam recently participated in the Natural Hazards Resilience Speaker Series at UNC, sharing information on his career, NOAA coastal resiliency projects, and challenges and opportunities for the future.

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami changed the trajectory of Adam’s career. The tsunami was the largest in 40 years and caused significant loss of life and property in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Somalia, Maldives, Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Kenya[1]. The devastation revealed hazard vulnerability in these countries, many of which did not have early warning systems employed by wealthier countries such as the United States and Japan.

From 2005-2007 Adam traveled through Asia to learn about the recovery process and facilitate the development of local plans to guide resilient recovery. This work culminated in the 2007 document: “How Resilient is Your Coastal Community? A Guide for Evaluating Coastal Community Resilience to Tsunamis and Other Hazards”[2]. The guide was one of the first to apply resilience to a land use concept. It also began Adam’s investigation into the crucial question of how we can learn from experience and other new information to ensure recovery leads to better conditions than existed prior to the hazardous event. It is this concept of resilience as informed recovery leading to better conditions that motivates Adam to continue natural hazards resiliency work.

ariel photo of flooded coastline

Figure 1. Flattened housing in Banda Aceh, Indonesia following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Source: Choo Youn-Kong/AFP/Getty Images.

Resiliency as learning resonated with me. There are so many unknowns in natural hazards and different permutations of impacts. Only by learning about past events, current conditions, and future projections can communities begin to absorb shocks and prevent hazards from becoming disasters. And though the pessimistic part of me wonders whether information will be enough for society to sacrifice current benefits for future hazard security, hearing Adam’s optimism was infectious.

Adam’s work also demonstrates how to put resiliency goals into practice. I was impressed by his role not just as a technical advisor, but as a community facilitator. Every project Adam discussed involved a laundry list of partners, from professional associations to government agencies, to community leaders. In particular, the Southeast & Caribbean Disaster Recovery Partnership and Pacific Risk Management ‘Ohana (PRIMO) seem like unique efforts to create learning networks, recognizing that resilience relies on collaboration.

graphic explaining natural disaster threshold

Figure 2. Role of Resilience in Determining Community Response to a Hazard Event. Source: How Resilient is Your Coastal Community? A Guide for Evaluating Coastal Community Resilience to Tsunamis and Other Coastal Hazards (U.S. Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Program, 2007).

Adam’s career is an example for others interested in natural hazards resiliency. In response to a disaster, Adam dove into the world of resiliency, stretching the concept to think about land use practices and community roles. He has been sustained in this field by the belief in learning from experience to build community capacity and has put his beliefs into practice by creating dialogue across groups. The Natural Hazards Speaker Series class was incredibly lucky to hear from Adam this year, and I know for me, listening to his story made visioning a career in natural hazards resiliency a little easier.

[1] “Indian Ocean Tsunami Remembered — Scientists Reflect on the 2004 Indian Ocean That Killed Thousands | U.S. Geological Survey,” accessed March 11, 2022,

[2] How Resilient Is Your Coastal Community? A Guide for Evaluating Coastal Community Resilience to Tsunamis and Other Hazards (Washington, D.C: U.S. Agency for International Development, 2007).

Dr. William Hooke: Resilience in the Era of Climate Change

By Merrill Robinson

photo of Merrill RobinsonThe Spring 2022 Natural Hazards Resilience Speaker Series began with a lecture by Dr. William Hooke, who emphasized the precariousness of humanity’s current position given that the instances of natural hazards will only increase, and likely in unpredictable ways – but his lecture also exuded optimism. I was struck by his faith in younger generations to effect change and move toward a hazard-resilient future.

Dr. Hooke’s outlook on the future of the planet could seem rather grim. According to his talk, hazards will be more extreme than we expect; pollution and environmental degradation will be “rampant;” there will be shortages of vital goods like food, water, and energy; and climate change of any kind will be “bad” because of how attuned our civilization is to current conditions. However, despite the many ways he anticipates natural hazards will threaten us, he maintains that there is hope to be found in younger generations. Though I believe he would include himself in what he refers to as the older generations, he noted emphatically that “older people will be “wiser” but will have “the wrong kind of experiences” to tackle all of the changes and challenges that are imminent. I heard his lecture as a call to action, or at least a call to heed the voices of scientists and public figures who are both sounding the alarm of the need for change and offering actionable strategies to reduce future harms.

One such figure is Pope Francis. In his second encyclical, Laudato si’ (subtitled “on care for our common home”), the Pope lays out a moral argument for reducing the effects of climate change. His primary audience is people of the Catholic faith, but his influence extends well beyond Catholics. The document is an excellent example of a member of the “older” generation is using his position and influence to persuade adherents. In the encyclical, Pope Francis constructs an argument for climate change action on a foundation morality and ethics not at all exclusive to Christianity. Pope Francis argues, among other things, that the people on Earth who are least able to insulate themselves from the effects of climate change are the most likely to suffer its gravest harms. The rest of us, therefore, have an obligation to act in whatever way our skills permit.

photo of Pope Francis

As Dr. Hooke spoke of the encyclical, I thought of how the document and the lack of change resulting from it raise a fundamental question: how can people in positions of power and influence drive real change? I think it is essential that powerful voices like the Pope’s be heard as they advocate for change, but such speech does little without an audience willing to act. Around the world, activists, political leaders, and faith leaders call for action, but at the same time policy change stalls over short-term financial and political interests. Dr. Hooke alluded to the problem in his lecture, emphasizing that the real solutions will lie in policy change, not just technological innovation. As today’s young people begin to step into the world of industry and politics, how will they drive change? Will they acknowledge the moral imperative of climate change mitigation, even when it requires difficult decisions?

There is, of course, no clear-cut answer to this question; the specific changes that are to come are as unpredictable as the future of natural hazards. But Dr. Hooke offered breadcrumbs that we might follow to a more resilient future: shift our focus from “redistribution” of harm to “mitigation.” Build awareness. Gather experience, take notes, and learn from it. Change policy, and make better land-use regulations and resilient infrastructure. In each of these pieces of advice, I see another theme. Perhaps, just as humanity has a moral and ethical obligation to take action on behalf of those who cannot (and who will suffer most), those of us who have the resources and ability also have an obligation to gather skills and knowledge to drive change. We must heed Dr. Hooke’s admonitions to bear in mind and protect the most vulnerable among us, to learn from our experiences past and present, and to invest time and resources where they can make the greatest impact: policy change that shifts the model of resiliency to truly equitable recoveries and to meaningful reduction of harms.

Bridging Past and Future: The Role of Planners in Enhancing Community Resilience to Natural Hazards

By Lance Gloss

photo of Lance GlossSpring Creek runs through Fort Collins to meet Colorado’s Cache La Poudre River. Where the creek flows under a bridge near the Dairy Queen, a placard marks the high-water line of the 1997 Spring Creek Flood. That storm was what experts call a 500-year flood. Statistically, such an event has a one-in-five-hundred chance of occurring in a given year, based on historical data.

The event was horrific by all accounts. More than a foot of rain fell in Fort Collins on a summer day, sending a 15-foot surge of water down the channel and killing four people at a mobile home park near what we always called the Dairy Queen bridge. The bridge today simply carries traffic and allows water to pass through, but the placard on the bridge turns it into a physical manifestation of the event. With or without a high-water marker, though, a bridge is always more than a bridge.

A bridge, says Kory Wilmot, AICP, expresses an understanding of the future. Where a bridge begins and ends, how high it stands, what materials comprise a bridge – these features represent how the builders expect water to flow in fifty or one hundred years while a bridge is still in use.

The details of a bridge, and the future it represents, draw on expectations shaped by the past. Records of high water from 500-year floods – whether or not they are actually noted by a placard – are one type of information that engineers use to make infrastructure decisions in the present that will have decades of impact.

One of the great resiliency challenges faced by communities in this era of rapid climate change is that the past is no longer such a useful guide to the future. What was once a 500-year flood may no longer be so rare. Rather, we now expect change, and lots of it, in ways that we struggle to accurately predict. How, then, do we make decisions about a bridge today?

These are the kinds of resiliency questions that Wilmot addresses as an urban planner and project manager with the consulting firm AECOM. Wilmot has supported communities nationwide in establishing plans for community development, hazard mitigation, and disaster recovery. He recently shared lessons from his career in resilience planning with students at UNC, hosted by the Coastal Resilience Center in partnership with UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning.

Wilmot zeroed in on ways in which planners can support communities in their hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning. Planners play an essential role in creating the hazard mitigation plans that communities must produce and revise every five years under the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000. This includes setting priorities on how disaster recovery funds would be spent. It also includes assessing what costs would arise form a disaster and how those costs can be minimized by policies and development decisions.

Image: “Spring Creek Flood anniversary: Revisit the deadly night.” Erin Udell. The Coloradoan. July 20, 2017. 

Just as importantly, Wilmot charged planners with ensuring that thinking about disasters and uncertainty infuses the many types of plans communities produce. It is not enough to have a hazard mitigation plan on the shelf if the comprehensive plan, housing plan, and transportation plan ignore natural hazards and shifting climatic regimes. Planners must ensure that housing and critical infrastructure aren’t built in hazard-prone areas, as these decisions are challenging and expensive to reverse once made.

By integrating across plans, urban planners can guide where, and which, new infrastructure will be built. In Fort Collins for example, the City has installed early warning system of rain gauges, new green infrastructure, and new floodplain management regulations. All major City of Fort Collins planning documents now reflect concern for flooding, including the recently-adopted and comprehensive City Plan.

Kory Wilmot’s role as a consultant often has him playing this role for small communities that don’t have the resources to develop hazard mitigation plans on their own. This has given him a unique vantage point. He notes that Towns face unique combinations of hazards and contexts that set them apart. One thing they all have in common is the need for everyday infrastructure. In short, every community has its equivalent of Fort Collins’ “Dairy Queen bridge.”

One great power of infrastructure is its “infra” quality. The word-part signifies “below.” Infrastructure, then, speaks to changes we make to the landscape that become ordinary and accepted. By planning for hazards and integrating hazard planning into transportation, housing, and more, planners can ensure that the infrastructure we build today shapes our everyday thinking to reflect the uncertain and hazardous future we face.

Engineering With Nature: Pursuing a New Arrangement with Nature

By Dylan Burkett

photo of Dylan BurkettOn February 15, 2022, the Natural Hazards Speaker Series class, hosted by the Department of City and Regional Planning, had the delight of hearing from Dr. Todd Bridges, the U.S. Army’s Senior Research Scientist for Environmental Science. Dr. Bridges’ presentation, “Engineering with Nature: Pursuing a New Arrangement with Nature”, began with a general overview of where we currently are with living with different kinds of hazards. To begin, Dr. Bridges explained what he calls the “Multi-Hazard World” in which we live with all kinds of different hazards whether they be industrial, climatological, or man-made/caused. Further, Dr. Bridges put into perspective just how much loss we incur by explaining that, since 1980, there have been 310 weather and climate-related disasters that have each totaled one billion dollars in damages for a combined total of 2.2 trillion dollars.

After the introduction to disasters and where we stand today, Dr. Bridges took students on a journey through time as he discussed one of the earliest disasters affecting life In America: the drought of the Jamestown Settlement. This example was used to show that disasters are not a new phenomenon to the American people. Next on our trip through earlier history, we arrived at the San Joaquin Valley circa 1770. While the valley is still one of California’s greener areas today, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the valley was home to a myriad of rivers, wetlands, and other water features. Specifically, Dr. Bridges spent time speaking on Tulare Lake because it stands out as one of the earlier examples of how engineering with nature can change the physical landscape. What was once a lake of almost 800 square miles no longer exists today due to the construction of a series of dams across rivers that fed into the lake during the 20th century.

Moving along, Dr. Bridges spoke more on the 20th century, or what he called the “century of infrastructure”. Here, he dives into how humans used man-made infrastructure as a means of hazard mitigation and adaptation. Dr. Bridges gives specific numbers related to different types of infrastructure that came from this period: some examples include 90,580 dams; 4,071,000 miles of roadways; and 614,387 bridges. These construction projects caused a dramatic shift on not only the landscape, but the natural processes that occur across the physical landscape.

Finally, we come to a few examples of recent projects the Army Corps of Engineers have been working on and the overall thought process that underlies these projects today. Engineering with nature, today, consists of nature-based solutions which are used to “conserve, restore, and engineer nature for the benefit of nature and people.” For example, Bridges notes how trees can be used as infrastructure for cooling and air quality purposes.

Before this lecture, I was personally skeptical of how things were going to go. I entered with questions such as: Have humans not had a notorious history of interfering with nature? Where is the balance between engineering and controlling? Where do we draw the line at what we know we should or shouldn’t do with nature? However, Dr. Bridges made it clear from the beginning of his talk that the work that the Army Corps of Engineers does focuses solely to create more efficient processes in nature for its own benefit and for ours. I found this to be important because I did overlook the fact that we have necessary technology and means to create scenarios in which nature can perform its natural processes more efficiently. Dr. Bridges also illustrated this in the example of the Horseshoe Bend Island in the Atchafalaya River where the Army Corps has created a situation in which the river can more effectively offload its sediment on its own with no need for constant dredging. To conclude, I found Dr. Bridges to be a very knowledgeable guest with much real-world experience to back his presentation. I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation and it opened my eyes to a new perspective in which humans can engineer nature in ways that help both them and nature itself.

Increasing Natural Hazards Resilience in Marginalized Communities

By Rebecca Murphy

photo of Rebecca Murphy

What are the disaster resilience needs of different types of disadvantaged groups?

This was a key question posed within Dr. Cassandra Davis’s recent report from the Coastal Resilience Center at UNC Chapel Hill, titled “Support Strategies for Socially Marginalized Neighborhoods Likely Impacted by Natural Hazards”. Dr. Davis provided an engaging presentation on the report and its findings to the Natural Hazards Speakers Series class in early February and left students with meaningful ways to consider how future policies could increase resiliency and reduce risk to disadvantaged communities in the face of natural hazards and disasters.

As Dr. Davis described, the purpose of this research was to address equity in emergency management, and in turn, offer a structure for federal agencies, such as FEMA, to enhance their hazard mitigation assistance programs. Principally, her presentation highlighted primary findings as well as certain policy recommendations, such as short and long-term strategies to enhance FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program process. Yet, in addition to the core pieces of the report, there were several concepts and themes that also personally emerged for me from Dr. Davis’s presentation and subsequent Q&A.

Figure 1

“Support Strategies for Socially Marginalized Neighborhoods Likely Impacted by Natural Hazards” (Davis et al., 2021).

(1) The terms that we used around natural hazards and marginalized populations matter.

One of the first points that Dr. Davis made in her presentation, and included in the report, was the need to more closely examine how we define “vulnerability” and why this term can be both misleading and damaging when describing disadvantaged groups in the natural hazards space. Specifically, she explained that defining a group or community as socially vulnerable may not only fail to consider certain historical and/or social factors that exacerbate hazard impacts, but it also “suggests a static state and denotes weakness.” Instead, Dr. Davis pointed to the terms “socially marginalized” and “underrepresented” as better identifiers of those that have been disadvantaged by the current social, political, and economic structures that are institutionalized in today’s society.

Having just recently learned the particular vocabulary surrounding natural hazards, adaptation, and mitigation during my graduate coursework over the past year, hearing Dr. Davis make this important distinction within her research and discussion allowed me to think more critically about how we tend to discuss and perceive those disproportionately impacted by natural hazards. As a note, her report also includes a comprehensive summary of how certain individuals and groups tend to be more disadvantaged by natural hazards, which I found to be helpful in order to further understand why the term “vulnerability” is unsuitable as a term within fundamental equity contexts.

(2) There is no direct path to foster community trust and collaboration around mitigation.

 During the Q&A portion of her presentation, Dr. Davis shared her own personal experiences in engaging with marginalized communities around mitigation and discussed types of partnerships and social networks that she views as most effective at fostering collaboration and support for marginalized groups. In particular, she pointed to the necessity of both leveraging local knowledge and perspectives through participatory action research and action (PAR) as well as working alongside community-level organizations to better establish trust and communication with residents.

Although these lessons may be applicable to many non-hazard related community engagement objectives, Dr. Davis illustrated how they are especially pertinent around hazard resilience in order to ensure that mitigation support and resources are equitably distributed across members of the community. As such, her discussion made me more thoughtfully consider how different values and perspectives could be incorporated into future hazard mitigation plans and what these actions might potentially look like within my own community.

Figure 2

Figure 2: “Repairing Community Through Structural Change” (Davis et al., 2021). The pyramid highlights policy changes that are necessary within the BRIC program in order to support socially marginalized communities.

(3) Systemic change can start through short-term action.

 Towards the end of her presentation, Dr. Davis reflected on several key policy recommendations that the report provides in order to advance the BRIC program’s resources for underrepresented communities. She illustrated these recommendations in a pyramid ranging from goals to “address short-term needs in the BRIC proposal and review process” at the top to “acknowledge and dismantle systemic racism” at the pyramid bottom. Dr. Davis acknowledged that certain recommendations may not be tangible within the next decade or longer, but are key to addressing structural change within the current mitigation system.

Looking at the scale of steps to bring such change can certainly appear overwhelming. However, Dr. Davis described this path with encouragement and optimism, as well as concrete steps to initiate short-term improvements in the BRIC system. From her report and discussion, I look forward to seeing if and how BRIC personnel incorporate these recommendations to increase equity in future years. Personally, I am already encouraged by FEMA taking the promising step to track the race of disaster-aid applicants and analyze if discrimination is occurring in its funding structure.

The State Climate Office: Connecting Data to Decisions

By Walker Harrison

photo of Walker HarrisonAs the varied geography of North Carolina continually influences complex climatic conditions, the North Carolina State Climate Office is there, ever on the case. Officially designated as a North Carolina Public Service Center, the NC Climate Office collects and distills climate data into readily available information for decision-makers and citizens. At the top of the organization, heading a great team, is Kathie Dello, the North Carolina State Climatologist.

Dello graciously spoke about her background, her current role, and the reach of her organization and answered student questions during the Natural Hazards Speaker Series class at UNC-Chapel Hill on February 8, 2022.  Even after coming off a long, eventful day, Dello’s passion to engage with North Carolinians on climate radiated through the Zoom screen.

In Dello’s observations, the tide of the cultural conversation in North Carolina has mostly turned away from questioning if the climate is changing. This is a positive shift forward, as many are now asking what we can do about the changing climate. It’s particularly relevant due to the unfortunate truth that more and more North Carolinians can connect the effects of a changing climate to their lived experiences. These moments that reside in collective memory are reinforced through evidence of sustained tangible change to the landscape. It’s difficult to put climate change out of sight and out of mind when you walk daily by the remnants of a house severely affected by Hurricane Florence, for example.

Figure 1 Severe flooding from Hurricane Florence in 2018.

But this notable societal shift and a renewed emphasis on reporting the specific details of climate change has not solved our problems. Dello bluntly notes that the most recent IPCC report is the 6th such report saying climate change is a problem. Yet here we are still. The NC State Climate Office’s work with various non-governmental groups across the state attempts to move us as a society forward by offering resources in support of action. One example is their work facilitating a recent citizen science effort undertaken in Durham and Raleigh.

Citizen science events generally take advantage of the impressive recent technological innovations related to data collection and analysis. Various data collection tools have been developed to a point at which they are simple and operable by members of the public. This provides an effective way to compile large datasets while simultaneously bringing more folks into the scientific process of discovery. The citizen science effort in question was mapping Urban Heat Islands, those urban spaces that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. Many of the hottest recorded areas mapped onto those regions still grappling with historical factors such as redlining and recent factors such as susceptibility to flooding. Continued analysis of this research will be valuable for Durham and Raleigh in planning and implementing equitable, quick-build climate mitigation strategies.

Figure 2 North Carolina Climate Office staff member demonstrates data collection device.

I thought it was an immensely valuable reminder to hear Dello speak about messaging. For the graduate students who may one day be regarded as experts in this field like Dello, it is a humbling, yet vital recognition that we may not be the most helpful or influential messengers and influencers. The State Climate Office works with extension agents in all 100 counties in North Carolina, capitalizing on the ability for folks to hear difficult truths from trusted locals. The office also acknowledges the incredible momentum and power that the youth bring to the climate movement, channeling their deep climate anxiety into global campaigns. In concert with teachers, Dello’s team curates curricula for K-12 students that gives them the scientific foundational knowledge to spread their message.

Figure 3 Youth continue to be influential in the climate movement.

I was also impressed by the commitment to a team-based approach to climate research at the NC Climate Office. Acknowledging that the contributions from physical scientists are not the only pieces to the puzzle is an important step to addressing climate change through an equity lens.

The work that the NC State Climate Office does is inspiring and continues to build the foundation for more inclusion into the discussions about climate change in our state, nation, and world. I appreciate the office’s commitment to working with decision-makers, from the farmer to the city planner to the 8th grade student. May we all become decision-makers, influencing our changing climate for the better.


Meteorologists and Climatologists in Building Coastal Resiliency

By Cameron McBroom-Fitterer

Dr. Christopher Zarzar is a meteorologist teaching at North Carolina Central University. In a talk with the University of North Carolina’s Natural Hazards Resilience Speaker Series on February 22, 2022, Dr. Zarzar gave an overview of how his work as a meteorologist—or, more specifically, a hydrometeorologist specializing in water quantity and quality issues—intersects with the ongoing climate crisis.

To dive deeper into this work, one must first understand the fundamental distinction between the fields of meteorology and climatology. Put simply, meteorology is primarily concerned with forecasting and analyzing current weather conditions, while climatology deals with long-term patterns and (more specifically) with anthropogenic climate change.

This is not to say that meteorologists’ work does not overlap with climate issues. We are all familiar with local news meteorologists that provide daily weather updates to the general public, but the field stretches beyond that common point of reference. While meteorologists mostly do focus on forecasting short-term weather conditions and relaying that information to the public, only a select few operate in front of a greenscreen. Meteorologists like Dr. Zarzar – perhaps more appropriately known as atmospheric scientists—are more interested in conducting specialized weather-related research. The end results of this research might manifest as academic papers, programs/tools like water system models, or concrete strategies designed and implemented alongside environmental engineers.

A primary area of focus for Dr. Zarzar is examining issues of agricultural runoff related to hog and chicken farming in North Carolina. North Carolina has a notably high number of livestock farms and these farms generate large quantities of hazardous waste (often stored in lagoons) that can contaminate local water sources. The potential for contamination grows considerably during periods of high rainfall or storms. Zarzar utilizes techniques like drone land cover mapping and modelling to help better predict how lagoons will respond to adverse weather.

Projects like this one confront what Zarzar defines as “rapid hazards”. Rapid hazards are acute problems and thus fall within the realm of short-term weather relevant to meteorology. In contrast, a climatologist would be more likely to address what Zarzar calls “gradual hazards”—comparatively slow-moving matters like sea level rise or saltwater intrusion. Still, it is important to see how these spheres are overlapping rather than discrete. Though the fields of meteorology and climatology are distinct in name, their work is unmistakably intertwined. In the case of agricultural runoff studies in North Carolina, Zarzar and his colleagues need to account for extreme weather events. Here is where climatology studies and the climate crisis come into close contact with meteorological research. Climatology projections show that global warming is likely contributing to increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather across the world. Current estimates in North Carolina suggest that the state can expect a 40% increase in heavy rain events. The climate projections of today are the weather events of tomorrow, and for Dr. Zarzar’s purposes this rise in heavy rain will translate to a rise in agricultural runoff. In turn, projected spikes in extreme heat events will only amplify runoff problems by creating an environment suitable for the growth of harmful algae blooms in North Carolina’s water reservoirs.

These projects also present real problems of equity. Livestock farms are very likely to be located in and around socioeconomically marginalized communities. The people that live near these locally unwanted land uses are more likely to be poor or people of color. Historic patterns of inequity and systemic injustice have unequally subjected these communities to the negative impacts of hazards like agricultural runoff.

Part of Zarzar and his colleagues work on this issue aims to create tools and practical strategies that can help empower marginalized communities to understand risk and reduce negative impacts. Most importantly, these measures are guided by community input and tailored to communities’ specific needs. Perhaps the most compelling and encouraging point Dr. Zarzar made was emphasizing that scientists like himself should not be communicating their results with other scientists as the final audience or end recipients. Rather, by making tools and documents as accessible as possible for the general public, the science community can better ensure that these resources can be utilized to the fullest extent by a diverse set of groups (regular citizens, policy makers, researchers from other fields, etc.).

Ultimately, Dr. Zarzar’s talk helped to define meteorology’s distinct placement in the overall web of climate crisis response. Because weather is—by definition—rooted in the present moment, meteorology seems uniquely positioned to engage with concrete issues on the ground. Whereas climate science is a necessary source of information regarding future conditions, meteorologists like Zarzar interpret these findings as they relate to the present day and help to initiate and carry out actions that speak to communities’ immediate concerns. The average person is likely more concerned with (and receptive to solutions about) the problems of tomorrow rather than the problems taking place 30 years from today. That perspective is rational and unlikely to change, and it seems like that simple truth drives meteorology’s role in climate resilience.

Proactive vs. Reactive Mindset and Climate Change

By Langston Alexander

Dr. William H. Hooke, Associate Executive Director and Senior Policy Fellow at the American Meteorological Society, was the inaugural speaker for the spring 2022 Natural Hazards Resiliency Speaker Series. With a storied career in public service, including stints as Acting Chief Scientist at NOAA and Senior Scientist to the U.S. Commerce Secretary and spanning more than 50 years, I did not know quite what to expect from Dr. Hooke. From someone with his technical expertise, would he be drilling us on the pros and cons of various atmospheric models of climate change? Or perhaps a refresher on how greenhouse gases impact the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere? As someone with little background in science, I admit I was intimidated just thinking about it.

But right from the start, Dr. Hooke dispelled any anxiety I had of a physics pop quiz. He took advantage of his position as our first lecturer to usher the class into the world of climate change and hazard mitigation by taking a step back to frame the planet we live on and the problem we face.

He began by framing the planet as a series of systems that are ultimately beyond our control. These major systems, of which he highlights the geologic, atmospheric, and ecological, are paradoxes in many ways. They give humans life, but can also be extremely deadly. They are immensely powerful, but can also be fragile. And it is within these systems that humans must find resilient ways to live.

The problem of climate change, as Dr. Hooke defined it, is a four-fold one: 1) It causes changes in the frequency, intensity, duration, and patterns of extreme weather across the globe; 2) global cooperation is necessary for any effective solution; 3) preexisting patterns of inequity are compounded by climate change; and 4) conditions are worsening quickly, requiring a quick response.

These problems are solvable, but only if humans can move from a reactive mindset to a proactive mindset. Historically, when natural hazards impact humans we have built back in many the same ways as before. Dr. Hooke argues that for any chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change this needs to change. Evacuating and rebuilding to the status quo simply is not enough anymore.

As an example of this agile problem-solving mindset, he recalls the impact of instituting of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on airline travel. Up to that point, flight casualties had risen in tandem with the increased number of flights. The federal government and airline executives realized this wasn’t sustainable if people were going to feel safe flying on a regular basis. The NTSB instituted strict safety precautions for airplanes and carefully reviewed every crash to understand where it failed. Since NTSB’s creation in the early 1970’s, casualties have dropped precipitously even though the quantity of airplanes and daily flights have increased. The same spirit of close public-private collaboration, unflinching assessments of failure, and commitment to problem-solving needs to be adopted in order to successfully withstand climate change.

Dr. Hooke finished by moving away from the subject of climate change all together. He addressed the fear that most burgeoning professionals feel: the fear of failure. As a student it is easy to feel you are never doing enough, especially for those of us working in the realm of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Time is of the essence with climate change – we need to reduce emissions now and prepare for the worst effects before they become reality. This urgency is necessary for change to materialize but can also lead to exhaustion and burnout. Dr. Hooke’s final words were a quote from Mo Siegel, the founder and former CEO of tea company Celestial Seasonings. He said, “As long as you have something to offer the world, you will never go hungry.” In this I read a deep calm about the world and our place in it. As long as we are striving for a better world, fulfillment will follow.

A deep thank you do Dr. Hooke for his time and sage words of advice. We could not have asked for a better inaugural speaker for the class.

The cost of flooding

Don Hornstein presents on flood insurance as part of the Natural Hazards Resilience Speakers Series in February

Donald Hornstein presents on flood insurance as part of the Natural Hazards Resilience Speakers Series in February.

By Rachael Wolff

“Flooding is head and shoulders above any other catastrophe that you or the world is going to face in its lifetime… in terms of sheer dollars and cents, especially with sea level rise.”

Rachael Wolff

Rachael Wolff

Take it from Don Hornstein, who knows a thing or two about flooding. Prof. Hornstein holds the distinction of Aubrey L. Brooks Professor of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill and membership with the University’s Institute for the Environment, Ecology and Energy Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. He serves as a longstanding appointee on the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Insurance Underwriting Association. His current projects include writing about The Political Economy of Resilience and training lawyers to represent low-wealth communities in flood zone property buyouts.

Donald Hornstein

Donald Hornstein

Prof. Hornstein took time out of his busy schedule on Feb.17, 2021, to participate in the Natural Hazards Resilience Speaker Series, a partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of City and Regional Planning and UNC’s Department of Homeland Security Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence.

Prof. Hornstein was a delightful speaker – candid, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. His presentation brought up many questions on the role of flood insurance, who it serves, and how the public should respond. Personally, this discussion resulted in three key takeaways: 1) Flooding is ubiquitous and expensive; 2) Disaster costs are political; and 3) Flood insurance should be accountable to the people.

Flooding is ubiquitous and expensive

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