Wednesday, January 15, 2014

By Angel Braestrup, Chair, Board of Advisors, The Ocean Foundation

All over the world, 2012 and 2013 will be remembered for unusual amounts of rainfall, powerful storm surges, and unprecedented flooding from Bangladesh to Argentina; from Kenya to Australia.  Christmas 2013 brought an unusually intense early winter storm with calamitous flooding and other effects to St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago; and other island nations, such as the United Kingdom where additional storms just expanded the damage from early December’s record storm surge.  And it is not just at the ocean’s edge that communities are feeling change. 

Just this fall, Colorado experienced a once in a 1000-year flood event from storms borne to the mountains from the warming waters of the Pacific.  In November, storms and tornadoes caused more than a billion dollars in damage across the Midwest. And, the same debris issue confronted those affected communities as did Japan in the wake of the 2011 tsunami, the Philippine island of Leyte from Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, New York and New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina, Ike, Gustav, and half a dozen other storms in the last decade or so.

My previous blog talked about surges of water from the ocean, whether from storms or from earthquakes, and the devastation it leaves behind on land.  Yet, it is not just the incoming rush of water that does so much harm to coastal resources—both human built and natural.  It is what happens when that water flows back out again, carrying with it the debris from its own destructive rush and a complex soup that draws ingredients from every building it passes, under every sink, in every custodian’s closet, auto mechanic shop, and dry cleaner, as well as whatever detritus the water picked up from trash cans, garbage dumps, construction zones, and other built environments.

For the oceans, we must consider not just the storm or the tsunami, but the aftermath. Cleaning up after these storms is an enormous task that is not limited to the simple drying out of flooded rooms, replacing flooded cars, or rebuilding boardwalks.  Nor is it dealing with the mountains of toppled trees, sediment piles, and drowned animal carcasses.  Each of the major storm surge or tsunami events carries debris, toxic liquids, and other pollution back out to sea.

The receding waters can take all of the cleaners under thousands of sinks, all of the old paint in thousands of garages, all of the gasoline, oil, and refrigerants from thousands of cars and appliances, and mix it into a toxic soup complete with all the back wash from sewage systems and the plastic and other containers it was held in.   All of a sudden what was sitting harmlessly (mostly) on land is flooding into coastal marshes and nearshore waters, mangrove forests, and other places where animals and plants may already be struggling from the effects of human development.  Add several thousand tons of tree limbs, leaves, sand and other sediment that is swept along with it and there is the potential for smothering the thriving habitats of the ocean floor, from shellfish beds to coral reefs to seagrass meadows.

We lack systematic planning for the after effects of these powerful destructive surges of water across coastal communities, forests, marshes, and other resources.  If it were an ordinary industrial spill, we would have a process in place to leverage the violation for clean-up and restoration.  As it is, we do not have a mechanism for ensuring that companies and communities better secure their toxics in advance of a storm’s arrival, nor to plan for the consequences of all of those substances flowing together into nearshore waters at once.   In the wake of the Japanese tsunami of 2011, the damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant also added radioactive contaminated water to the mix—a toxic residue that is now showing up in the tissue of ocean animals such as tuna.

We have to shift to being better prepared for more storms of greater intensity with more precipitation and perhaps more power than we have in the past.  We have to think about the consequences of flooding, storm surge, and other sudden inundations.  We have to think about how we build and what we use.  And we have to rebuild the natural systems that act as shock absorbers for our most vulnerable ocean and freshwater neighbors—the marshes, the coastal forests, the dunes—all of the natural buffers that support rich and abundant aquatic life.

So what can we do in the face of such power?  How can we help our waters stay healthy? Well, we can start with what we use every day.  Look under your sink.  Look in the garage.  What are you storing that should be disposed of properly?  What kinds of containers can replace the plastic ones?  What products can you use that will be safer for the air, land, and sea if the unthinkable should happen?  How can you secure your property, right down to your trash cans, so that you are not accidentally part of the problem?  How can your community come together to think ahead?

Our communities can focus on the natural habitats that are part of healthy aquatic  systems that can better respond to the sudden inundation of water, debris, toxins, and sediment.  Inland and coastal marshes, riparian and scrub forests, sand dunes and mangroves are just some of the wet habitats we can protect and restore.[1]  Marshlands allow incoming water to spread out, and outflowing water to spread out, and all of the water to be filtered before entering a lake, river, or the sea itself.  These habitats can act as cachement zones, allowing us to clean them up more readily.  As with other natural systems, diverse habitats support the needs of many ocean species to grow, reproduce and thrive. And it is the health of our ocean neighbors that we want to protect from the human-created harms of these new precipitation patterns that are causing so much disruption to human communities and coastal systems.

[1] Natural defenses can best protect coasts,