By Sarah Logan
The following article appeared in the October 2019 edition of The Campus.
During my middle school years, I harbored a fascination with the apocalypse. One morning, before the start of the school day, I sat and watched a documentary describing the proposed events that would happen on December 21st, 2012. The Mayan calendar had predicted that the world would end on that day. I listened with fear, worrying about what the future might bring.
Just like that middle schooler, I still think about the future of our planet and anticipate the worst. However, in our modern world, the prospect of an apocalypse is more realistic. Planet Earth is pummeled with natural disasters on an annual basis. Along with our everyday stressors, these natural disasters can cause us to worry about the loss of our home and even our loved ones. Thus, what is our history of natural disasters and climate change? And how does this change the state of our planet today?
On August 25th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the southeast coast of Florida. The storm, which lasted about five days, disrupted the lives of many Americans. Tragically, many individuals died due to the intensity of the storm. New Orleans’s levees failed and water gushed into neighborhoods, streets, and buildings, which left many homes destroyed by the heavy rainfall and flooding. Heavy winds also caused a tremendous amount of damage. Families and the people of New Orleans were left homeless and displaced.
It’s difficult to imagine that a storm could exact this amount of damage and death. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hurricane Katrina caused $161 billion in damage, ranking it as one of the top five costliest U.S. hurricanes on record. According to the National Weather Service, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,833 individuals.
For those in its path and who survived, Hurricane Katrina unleashed a tremendous effect upon residents’ mental and physical health. Those who were displaced had a hard time finding health care. The Center for American Progress states that more than 40% of evacuees, due to their pre-existing medical conditions, needed to take prescription drugs during the aftermath of the storm. However, one-third of those individuals had to go without their necessary medications.
The effects of powerful storms like Katrina extend beyond physical health problems. In addition to fatalities, injuries, and lack of access to health care and medications for pre-existing conditions, many survivors reported an increase in mental health issues. According to a 2007 survey of FEMA trailer residents in Mississippi, more than 70% of residents reported symptoms of depression and 60% reported signs of major depression.
More recently, in early November of 2018, a fire, known as Camp Fire, ravaged parts of Northern California. According to the Washington Post, it killed at least 85 people and destroyed 14,000 residences in California. Many residents were left without their beloved homes for the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Displaced people boarded in shelters, hotels, and even camped outside due to the wildfires.
Camp Fire was 2018’s costliest natural disaster. Kimberly Amadeo, a writer for The Balance, claimed that the fire caused $16.5 billion in damages, burning 153,336 acres of land and 18,733 buildings. California’s Bay Area Air Quality Management District recorded 13 days of particulate pollution above 151 micrograms per cubic meter on November 20th, 2018. Due to this, many people were rushed to the emergency room directly after the fire because of bad air quality.
Recently, I had dinner with my three roommates. We enjoyed pizza from one of the local shops and celebrated the start of the new school year. While we talked about our summer and our goals for the upcoming academic semester, a fire raged thousands of miles away in the Amazon rainforest. Our conversation soon focused on this topic. The rainforest did not burn due to a natural disaster, but at the hands of humans. Evidently, we were creating our own apocalypse.
The Brazilian National Institute for Space Research has detected more than 72,000 fires in the Amazon rainforest since January of 2019. Many of these fires were intentionally set to ignite deforestation. After deforestation, farmers use the land to plant crops. It may seem like a good idea, however, the destruction of this natural habitat affects everything – plants, animals, humans, even us here at The City College of New York (CCNY).
The demise of the Amazon rainforest through intentional fire is a disaster that has many CCNY students worried. This disaster is a reminder that the actions we take today can negatively impact out future. The younger generation will bear the brunt of the mental and physical health issues brought about by these disasters whether they are near or far.
Rachel Mathew, a junior studying vocal jazz and minoring in Jewish studies, explained the ramifications of the Amazon’s destruction on a personal level. “The rainforest is the Earth’s lungs,” she said. “I am saddened by this realization. Without the rainforest, we won’t have access to clean air. We won’t be able to breathe.” The fires emit large amounts of carbon monoxide in the South America region.
After hearing this news, an anonymous source stated that they became terribly anxious.“It became hard to breathe once I really started to think about the situation. It felt as if I was feeling the effects of the fire even though I wasn’t physically there,” the source said.
Along with the wildlife that make their home in the Amazon rainforest, the indigenous people, who depend on a variety of the rainforest’s resources, are experiencing tragedy of their own. In a BBC video, Handech Wakana Mura, an indigenous leader of the Mura tribe, states that “with each passing day we see deforestation, invasions, and logging. We feel the climate changing.”
With the increase in violent hurricanes and the deforestation of land, the world is, without a doubt, undergoing a change in climate.
On July 17th, 2019, NASA recorded a measurement of 411 ppm, or 411 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2). This greenhouse gas traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is usually released due to human activity, and deforestation is the leading cause. Rising temperatures fuel hurricanes. As temperatures heat up and the climate changes, NASA notes that there will be an increase in the intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes. We have set ourselves up for cycles of tragedy and disaster, leading to mass destruction and physical and emotional pain for many around the globe.
We can, however, take action now to improve our future. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish activist, has been fighting for a solution to climate change for several years. She organized a strike outside the Parliament building in Stockholm and refuses to travel by plane because of its negative effect on the environment. The fight continued right here in New York City on Friday, September 20th, where Thunberg and over 50,000 people gathered in Battery Park to demand action. As the biggest climate strike the world has ever seen, the majority of protestors were students, who skipped school to attend this crucial event. They are the future of this fight and it is up to everyone else to join them in finally sparking change in our dooming planet. They are doing the work that generations before have ignored and it is the world’s turn to listen and support. Flora Lennihan, a sophomore studying film and anthropology believes that the media could have a positive affect if they changed their reporting style, she states, “I think the media should take more of an informative and educational approach by providing facts about how climate change affects the frequency of storms and ways that we can try to prevent them.”.
Becoming aware of the weather events and disasters around us, near and far, enables us to better understand the risks of climate change and the resulting natural disasters. Leading climate scientists claim we are partly responsible for weather-related disasters and without this understanding and acceptance, we could be in for a bleak future. The possibility of an apocalypse does not seem so irrational.