Chaos and Resilience in Human and Natural Ecosystems
Post by Kieko Matteson
Spring 2013 saw some of the worst flooding in central European history. After a relentlessly rainy May, in which nearly every day of the month was marked by unseasonably cold temperatures and steady downpours, the swollen streams and water-logged soils of Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were subjected to one more deluge the first weekend of June. The results proved disastrous.
Meteorologists who noted in May that it was the rainiest month on record in Germany in fifty years revised their remarks, then revised them again, first comparing the floods of June to the “hundred-year flood” of 2002, then declaring that this month’s torrents had been the worst in five hundred years. Even now, as the flood waters of the Danube (which reached 8.91 meters in Budapest) have largely receded and politicians have begun to estimate the cost of the damage, the Elbe River continues to surge through northeastern Germany, and thousands of people remain evacuated from their homes.
For me, as a Carson Fellow in Munich this spring, the experience of seeing the dramatic rise and rapid abatement of the Isar River and the equally sudden transition from dreary daily inundations to spirit-lifting sunshine in the span of a week called to mind my encounter two years ago, on August 29, 2011, with the sudden rains and massive flooding of Hurricane Irene.
Though these days I hail from Hawai’i, I happened to be visiting my parents that weekend in my childhood hometown in southern Vermont. A local committee had organized a celebration in honor of my 95-year old father whose achievements – in addition to his longevity – had garnered him special recognition. The event was supposed to feature the self-styled “Geezer Gazelle” sprinting down Main Street, followed by speeches, songs, and the presentation of a commemorative plaque heralding his nine decades of residence and community service. As it turned out, however, the day proved a lesson in the astonishing power of extreme weather, as well as a glimpse at the adaptive capacities of natural environments.
That morning, as friends and family assembled at the party site, a former brick factory-turned-arts center, an ominous blanket of clouds abruptly swept in, stalled overhead, and began pelting the village with sheets of rain so thick they were nearly opaque. Though the event organizers gamely went on with the festivities, it was difficult not to be worried: the lights flickered, then went out for good; the wind howled through the old building; and the waters of the normally placid brook two meters away became a seething torrent before our eyes. Fearing that water would soon overwhelm the small bridge between the carpark and the main road and strand us at the party overnight, we cut the ceremony short, bade hasty goodbyes, and scrambled for the exits.
The next day, the hurricane – dubbed “Irene” by meteorologists – was gone as quickly as it had come. Its destructive effects, however, looked to be far longer-lasting. Lashed by Irene’s high winds and heavy rain – as much as 28 centimeters in some areas – roads and bridges across the state were washed out, buildings were submerged, farmland was swamped, and reservoirs were choked with debris. My father, one of the few Vermont residents who could remember the Great Flood of 1927, noted that the damage this time around seemed comparatively worse. 175-year-old covered bridges that had survived the ’27 flood had been pummeled and swept away in a matter of minutes by the present catastrophe. Modern bridges fared no better. Even after the rain had stopped, rivers and creeks continued to rise as rainwater poured off the mountains. By the second day after the storm, more than 260 roads and bridges across the state were missing or closed, cutting off some towns completely.
At the time, analysts predicted that the geographic and economic breadth of Irene’s damage would place it among the ten most costly natural disasters in US history. From disrupted holidays along the Atlantic coast and destroyed cotton harvests in North Carolina, to the closure of Manhattan commerce and wreckage of civil infrastructure in upstate New York and Vermont, the storm caused far more extensive damage than people expected. Two years and more than a dozen “weather and climate disasters” later, however, Hurricane Irene has begun to seem like the new normal. Even as the storm’s socioeconomic consequences linger, they have been overshadowed by subsequent unprecedented calamities, particularly “Superstorm Sandy” in October 2012, currently ranked as the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
This kind of trauma – chaos in human communities as a result of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, snowstorms and heat waves – has measurably intensified in the last decade as climate change and its feedback loops have accelerated. Though scientists differ about the pace at which change is occurring – some believe it is already well underway, others consider it is harder to discern – all agree that swings in extremes between heat and cold, drought and deluge is or will be an effect of global warming. In light of this reality, the dominant rhetoric has notably shifted. In place of calls to “arrest” or “roll back” climate change, which now sound quaint and hopelessly Pollyannaish, present proposals emphasize “adaptation” and “resilience” – concepts that, while pragmatic, are also problematic in their suggestion of resignation and passivity. Some models are indeed mere stop-gap responses, like the “Resilience Tunnel Plug” – an object as cumbersome as its name, designed to inflate inside tunnels and prevent flooding during storms (the barriers were sadly still in the development phase when Hurricane Sandy hit New York). Others, however, like the decade-long “re-naturalization” of the Isar River in Munich, are more visionary and enduring. The project, which was completed in 2011, re-sculpted and widened the sections of the river that pass through the city to make way for the water’s winding flow and accommodate seasonal fluctuations between swelling and subsidence. The merits of this multi-million euro endeavor were in clear evidence during the downpours of May and June, when the Isar rose several meters above its normal level but, within Munich, did not significantly breach its banks.
Among other organisms, the consequences of weather intensification and the effectiveness of adaptive responses are harder to assess. Like human habitations along the Danube, bird nests and beaver lodges built directly on waterways were engulfed and ruined by this year’s floods. In Vermont, fish spawning zones were scoured by Hurricane Irene’s churning waters and afterwards obliterated by heavy-handed ad hoc and official “restoration” efforts. By contrast, upland areas and their inhabitants were relatively unaffected. Indeed, in the case of some species, the onslaught of wind and rain appeared a source of pleasure.
On the day following Hurricane Irene, with the sun out and the sky a brilliant blue, my father and I went out for a hike. Signs of the storm were everywhere as we drove through town – the aptly named Roaring Branch River was roiling, shopping plazas were flooded, road blocks were in force – but our destination was elsewhere: the Shaftsbury, Vermont peak known as West Mountain, where my dad hoped to find a cliff he remembered from decades earlier. For an hour, we picked our way gingerly across the damp forest floor, enjoying the moist, earthy smells and marveling at the raindrops, which dazzled as they dripped off bush and branch. We didn’t reach the rock face, nor even make it half-way – 70 years of woodland growth impeded our way and obscured the spot that, in my father’s youth, had been pasture – but we did find a multitude of lively amphibians, all seeming to savor the previous day’s downpour and the muddy rivulets now streaming through the forest.
Among the creatures we encountered were a serene Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) sitting in the middle of a logging road that had become a coursing stream, and a handful of wriggling Red Efts (Notophthalmus viridescens), whose bright orange hue strikingly contrasted with the deep greens and browns of the wet understory. The juvenile form of Eastern Newts, Red Efts spend as many as seven years in the woods feasting on grubs and worms in rotting logs before making their way to back to their natal ponds, where they mate, grow old, and die. For efts, Irene’s drenching rains and howling winds promised a bountiful buffet of downed trees for years to come, and potentially as a result, a more rapid and vigorous maturation into adult newt-hood.
Walking through the woods that day and in Munich two years later after the height of the spring floods, I couldn’t help but be struck by the comparative frailty of humans’ built environments in the face of severe weather. If resilience and adaptation rather than systemic socioeconomic and political transformation are to be our best answers to an increasingly turbulent climate, we might do well to look not only to tunnel plugs and riparian “re-naturalization,” but also to the life stages and variable, even exuberant, responses of the Red Eft / Eastern Newt: stay low, go with the flow, make the most of the rotting bits, and when it rains, wriggle.