From coast to coast, what climate change means for vulnerable populations 

A visitor takes in a view of the city’s skyline under the snow-covered San Gabriel mountains after a series of storms Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Los Angeles. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP News Room.

Northern Central California is currently under a winter storm warning. Reports state that California has had over six feet of snow and wind gusts up to 70 mph. While California has seen snow in the past, especially in the mountains, what’s different now is the amount of snow.  

It also raises questions and concerns about how communities and vulnerable populations will deal with the weather. It has also opened a conversation about future adaptation to extreme weather.  

Christopher Burton is a professor at the University of Connecticut. He specializes in the social characteristics of communities that come back from natural hazards and those that don’t. Burton said labeling a particular group as more or less vulnerable than others isn’t easy.  

Burton said social vulnerability is defined as characteristics that create potential loss or harm. However, determining what those characteristics are is difficult. Many scientists have different definitions of what those characteristics are making it difficult to reach a consensus across the scientific community.  

According to Burton locals aren’t the most vulnerable group. He said locals who live in the California mountains are savvy. Residents likely have four-wheel drive pickup trucks, generators and a long food supply. 

Rather, those who are vulnerable are likely to be tourists and the elderly, according to Burton. Recent reports found many tourists in the mountains rented houses for vacation. Burton said they likely only had food for the weekend and now are stranded there. Another group at risk is the elderly, who move slowly and have a greater risk of injury.  

Another issue with the amount of snow is the weight of it on roofs, which leads to house collapses. Burton speculates that these houses aren’t equipped for that much snow weight, which might result in new infrastructure laws if extreme snow continues to hit California year after year. 

Burton said that for the past 20 years, California has seen extreme weather on various ends. First, extreme drought, then extreme rainfall and now, extreme snow. 

There are long term effects of this amount of snow. When it melts, Burton said, it floods towns like Sacramento and San Francisco, putting them at a huge flood risk. 

Hexion successfully participated in three prescribed wildfire canyon burns in partnership with California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Stella-Jones Corporation, the National Science Foundation, and San José State University (SJSU). The scale of the prescribed test burns were some of the highest intensity burns conducted in a canyon, according to the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center (WIRC) at SJSU. Photo by Business Wire/AP Newsroom

But, in the past years, California has seen wildfires. Burton said that these two extremities can create even bigger issues with flooding. 

“That burning of the vegetation in the trees is going to cause erosion issues and more water runoff because where that water would otherwise get soaked into the groundwater … we could wind up with more water down in the valley,” Burton said.  

Burton said it also raises concerns about tourism and how that will affect the economy. San Francisco is a huge tourist destination, so if it falls to environmental hazards, that might put the city at risk economically.  

Extreme weather can also be found on the other side of the coast in Connecticut. Hurricane Isaias was detrimental to the Caribbean and east coast of the United States, including Connecticut. Burton remembers not having power for 10 days.  

Burton said that populations have a difficult time dealing with the extremities. When Burton was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, he remembers many people from other states coming to Columbia, where USC is located. However, Columbia has an inadequate public transportation system, so people couldn’t go into the city to find jobs and many nearly or did become homeless. 

Burton said the future of human interaction with the environment would depend on where you live. However, he emphasizes that people should be smart about where they purchase or build a home. 

“We tend to, as a culture in the US, build in certain areas where we really shouldn’t because it’s prestigious… it’s the coastal view, it’s the mountain side view… it’s gorgeous, but when you have these [natural disaster] events, they slide down the mountainsides!” Burton said.  

Burton said that insurance pays those residents, and they can rebuild them with stronger and better equipment, but he believes they shouldn’t build them in the first place.  

Burton said land use planning is important to determine how dangerous a living situation might be if an extreme event occurs. However, he said economic values sometimes trump science and land use planning. 

Burton said there is still a long way to go in the science community. One of the biggest questions scientists face is what to measure. Engineers, ecological or environmental scientists, and social scientists, for example, all might have different definitions of resilience, Burton said. Their definition is also different from the government’s definition. This lack of communication can make it difficult to come to a conclusion and thus proceed further with a plan.  

However, Burton has hope for the future of resilience to extreme weather events. In the past, many communities have been caught off guard by extreme weather. Now, they know the extremes. Many states, counties and cities have disaster resilience groups that plan ahead of time. Burton also said learning from each other requires a state, nation and worldwide conversation. 

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